Animal Hearts and Alprazolam Eyes: Nikki Maloof at Shane Campbell Gallery
They seem to be … scanning … searching … through the white walls and white light, past Cermak … beyond Brooklyn … these massive, searching, scanning, yearning, alprazolam eyes, wide and wet with an anxious energy belayed by the piano-wire purse of their mouths, and it's a funny thing, seeing this menagerie—a stallion deep and dark and strong and arresting as the abyss; a wind blown canine the color of youth soccer and science fair trophies, its ears moving like a model's hair; cats with the casual repose of Instagram influences, languid echoes of Versailles; a bat neigh-indistinguishable from its night, wings face fur rendered in dried russet, a tropological coagulate crowned, like all its mates, up to and including the dead fucking fish, with those eyes—these eyes, with complete disregard for science and anatomical fidelity, tasked not with anything so brute and beautiful as physiology but instead being bent towards the philosophical, giving every animal here a look that's not of them, and not of us—the eyes aren't human; more super-human, really, uncanny, like anime eyes whose very size and depth seems capable of expressing exigency beyond anything but reality—but is of a universal human feeling, that painful, wistful vibe, hope tinged with fear as we scan the horizon, check the sidewalk, hold our breath for a text, the scars in our eyes reflected back at us—with vibrancy and humor and the alienation requisite for recognition—in Nikki Maloof's creatures, the Arecibo Observatories set within their skulls scanning, searching, complete heterochromia combing the distance, the Klonopin horizon, for an intelligence they don't fully understand, every pet part of SETI … – B. David Zarley , Chicago Contributor
Separation Anxiety, Nikki Maloof's (NAP #128) solo show at Shane Campbell Gallery's South Loop location, continues the artist's availing to of animal forms—indeed, there's not a person to be found in any of the enormous paintings or their little greyscale antecedents, not a person to be found physically, anyway; they (we)instead exist as gestures, artifacts, in the wrapping of reins to a tree, the lambent lattice work of a distant window, the bars of a cage, the gaze of a pet, alighted upon by those haunting, telescopic disks of eyes—to evoke emotions and ideas important to humanity without all of the emotional and art historical baggage any depiction of the human figure she wishes to have no truck with. A person's wistful stare at the horizon inspires a story—a dog's, an emotion. A bat's … well, I'm not entirely sure, but I have fucking adored them since I was a child and seeing a blighted creature portrayed with obvious love, humor, and dried-blood dignity, tangled in glorious flora supernaturally lit while the animal stays cloaked in the shadows, is a surprisingly moving experience.
Everything revolves around those Jovian eyes, big enough that they cause their own gravitational pull, observation orbiting around them just as this review does, and everything in the show except the creeping ornate carpet swatch insects and some nude oysters—basically, anything with simple eyes, including a clearly dead fish dinner and a blushing lobster (although it should be noted that lobsters do have a unique type of compound eye, known as a superposition eye, that operates on a principle of light reflection, not refraction, meaning they have mirrors, not lenses)—have undergone Maloof's trademark taxidermic process and had their eyes replaced with slightly spooky simulacra—bear witness to the cocaine-white cat ascending the stairs, whose blue eye consumes and projects from the side of its skull like an imbedded jewel!
These are the most immediate and arresting testaments to Maloof's enjoyable lack of concern for scientific fidelity. Having freed herself of the strictures of human figures, what fun would it be to have to hew now to nature? In this way, she captures more the impression of an animal than its physical form; each creature is in effect a cipher to then be animated however their creator wants, vessels meant for an emotive means, and while its obvious in the longing looks of dogs or horses, the true power of her method is felt in the animals we do not already gavage with our own sentiment—who else could coax feeling from, and this bears repeating, because it is an amazing feat of necromancy, a dead fucking fish, a cold fish!, a literal cold fucking fish, an animal which reads as savagely stony even when it is alive and swimming, or could paint a caged bird and capture, in the size of its eyes and the sunset of its breast and the gentle decline of its mouth, that bizarre need to cradle such a creature, feel the impossible lightness of its hollow bones, the essence of its power and fragility. (That that trade was made—delicacy for avigation—without this bird's knowledge or consent, and that it will never reap the benefit, despite its bones being as empty as any other's, only serves to exacerbate the emotion.)
Notably absent from Separation Anxiety are the more exotic fauna she's shown in the past, the monkeys and big cats that make W pay attention and populate the second sentence of her Jack Hanley—if only it could be Jack Hannah!—Gallery bio. Each and every creature on show in Chicago could conceivably be seen within a 30 minute or so drive, up to and including the bat—which is kept cloaked, hidden, experienced only as an idea and eyes in the dark, like most crepuscular city beasts—if one knows where to look; they are found in houses or pet stores, on farms or blades of grass.
In this final layer of tension Maloof adds an elevating quality—a house cat is not a house cat, but a quietly perturbed princess; a dog is not a dog, but an aching, desiring, perfect distant lover—to her creatures, especially in the ones she is rendering in paint as we did in blood—dogs, cats, horses, all shaped as purposefully in breeding as Maloof's are by her brush. Maloof's anthropomorphic subjects were always more of us than from us, but by bringing her kingdom home, she adds a bestial-cum-domestic diadem that further inflames the anxieties enshrined in their eyes.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter @BDavidZarley.