Artist Feature: Nikki Maloof
Nikki Maloof is a painter based in South Hadley, MA and is represented by Jack Hanley Gallery in the Lower East side. She holds an MFA from Yale and a BFA from Indiana University, IN. Her recent solo show at Jack Hanley Gallery, titled ‘Caught and Free’, featured 8 large scale paintings and a near dozen drawings that positioned animals as subjects. However, like many things, the surface is not reflective of it all for the artist who’s proclivity to painting animals spans several years.
In a way Nikki Maloof lured us in with exciting patterns on rugs, brilliantly painted chairs and sweet longing cat eyes but the show gives us much more. The scale alone wasn’t the only factor but that was ultimately impressive to the senses. These paintings were about what painting can do but also about what animals can’t do. Animals, in our constant control and always for our specific attention have limits and this shows through their dependent gaze.
Stoic birds larger than life soaked in cadmium yellow stared back at me through a cage in the larger than life painting titled Canaries (2018, 70×80 inches, oil on canvas). I couldn’t help but be reminded of the text by John Berger, ‘Why look at animals?’ When I saw these scared cats, fish for dinner, and trapped birds looking back at me – it reminded me of relatively new relationship we have to animals post nineteenth century. We keep pets now for different functions than ever before, millions of house pets for company, not for farm & land work – but to fill a void from the lack of interaction with animals we have in every day life. Much like zoos are a monument to the lack of animals; the proliferation of house pets highlights our lack of engagement with the natural world. This show paints about this in a smart, beautiful and almost celebratory way.
The position of the viewer in Maloof’s recent paintings shows our control – we are always looking in at an animal about to be eaten, or safe inside a house window or under a table. The animals, often sweet with bright blue wide eyes, look funny and pensive at the same time.
Maloof’s use of newspaper as a subject is a coy one, in that it often lies under neath the subject – the animal in the painting. This functional use of newspaper as a cloth for fish cutting (image, Anxiety) or scraps under a bird cage brings in politics and the reminder of the dread and doom of the news amidst these seemingly playful paintings. This does two things, it provides levity to the news and it confounds the control we try to conjure about animals with the lack of control we really have in real life. The news, despite it’s possibilities to be positive, often leave us hopeless and feeling trapped. Perhaps this mirrors back on what these animals feel – they are free sometimes but they are always caught. In our possession and always for our convenience.
Beyond those double meanings seamlessly woven into these paintings – the show is simply brilliantly painted. Caught and Free was so exciting to me and one of the best I’ve seen all year – it made me want to paint as soon as I left. I don’t say that about many shows or artists. It seems Maloof is on the right track and loves to paint – this shows in the work and entices me to follow along.
I believe, if all things are clicking in the studio, joy runs ahead with paintings and the artist if lucky, chases them but never catches them.