NIKKI MALOOF, Skunk Hour, Perrotin New York, (March 3 – April 15, 2023)

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Perrotin is pleased to present our first exhibition with artist
Nikki Maloof. Opening on March 3, Skunk Hour, will present a
new series of paintings and drawings where imagined interiors
and animals become proxies for the human experience.

For Nikki Maloof, painting is a way to convey the experience of existing
in the world—the light, the dark, and all the shadows in between. Her
language is figuration: she started out with portraits of individual animals,
progressing onto still lifes and, most recently, domestic interiors and
landscapes populated with a mix of creatures—human and non-human;
alive, dead, and inanimate. These subjects, on one level, have an
everyday familiarity. Indeed, they are in many instances collected from
Maloof’s immediate environment: for the past few years, her house and
studio in rural Massachusetts. But the resulting depictions, however
vivid, never feel quite real. The colors are bright, the shapes cartoonish,
the compositions often implausible. Everything is emotionally charged.
The eyes of dead fish seem to brim with sadness, the oversized blade of
a knife glints with menace. A woman who shares Maloof’s physical
features stands at a window with a glum expression, her face only just
visible behind a tree dense with apples. Looking at these canvases is like
looking at a series of dreams, governed by a mysterious logic, their
characters and events freighted with ambiguous symbolism.
Of course, unlike in a dream, Maloof chooses what to paint: hers is a
conscious artistry. We see evidence of this in her equally accomplished
graphite works on paper, in which images are carefully worked out
before she embarks on the larger oils on linen. (It’s fun to play spot the
difference between the versions in pencil and paint: notice how a glass
of wine materializes on a countertop; how a cat relocates from the
landing to the stairs.) Perhaps her work is more akin to confessional
poetry, intensely personal yet meticulously crafted. The title of this
exhibition, “Skunk Hour,” is borrowed from a well-known poem by Robert
Lowell, published in 1959, which begins as a light-hearted description
of a seaside town in Maine and culminates in a self-portrait of a mind in
turmoil. “I myself am hell,” wrote Lowell, “nobody’s here— / only skunks,
that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat.” Similarly, Maloof describes
the scenes she constructs as “vessels,” giving tangible form to
psychological states or particular thoughts and feelings.

The idea for this new series of paintings hatched last spring, when one
morning the artist stumbled upon the birth of a fawn near her home, and later that day witnessed the body of a recently deceased neighbor being
removed from his home. She decided that she wanted to capture the
weight of being made simultaneously aware of the beginning and the
end of life, as well as the tension between the mundane and extraordinary.
There are no laboring deer or body bags here: instead, we get paintings
like Life Cycles (2022), in which five plates are arranged in a circle,
showing the progression of fishes’ lives from small orange roe on
crackers to clean-picked bones. Or Burning Bush (2022), in which an
empty bird’s nest rests inches away from a hawk dismembering its prey
on a branch of the same tree. Whether taking the form of conventional
still lifes or more expansive house-and-garden scenes, Maloof’s coded pictures make clear reference to the conventions of Western religious
vanitas painting, with its representations of physical objects—flowers,
food, skulls—to symbolize the transience of earthly pleasures.

If this sounds unremittingly heavy, it’s not. Maloof’s paintings also offer up
many of their own pleasures, both intellectual and sensuous. It would be
remiss, for instance, to ignore the slapstick wit in the detail of a rolled
joint on a kitchen shelf in the work entitled Skunk Hour (2022): skunk
here signifying not the foul-odored mammal but the just-as-pungent
strain of cannabis. Life, as Maloof understands, is nearly always funny,
even when things are pretty bad. And if you’re not in the mood to laugh,
well, just try to resist the delights of the paintings themselves—their
profusions of color, pattern, and texture. Extending the culinary theme,
we might describe her work as a feast for the eyes. See how the coiling
smoke from the lit joint rhymes with the squiggles of steam rising above
a pair of artichokes in a colander; notice the thick scraped impasto of the
howling cat’s bristling fur. Maloof is unabashedly maximalist in her
approach to her canvases, layering both imagery and brushstrokes, at
times threatening to overwhelm her subjects through an abundance of
painterly gesture. This makes perfect sense. In such moments it becomes
clear that, despite the universality of their themes, Maloof’s paintings are
a vision of the world as seen through the eyes of a singular artist.

— Gabrielle Schwarz

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