Insects and living things pose in the mostly human-free painting show by PEEP Projects

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Corey Qureshi is reviewing Strange Nature, a two-person exhibition of lockdown-inspired paintings by Nancy Mladenhoff and Karen Heagle. The show – which Corey says conjures up eerie memories of early pandemic times – can be seen (by appointment) on PEEP Projects through July 29th.

Nancy Mladenoff, “As the Crane Flies” (2020), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 “. See “Strange Nature” at PEEP Projects, a two-person exhibition of paintings by Nancy Mladenoff and Karen Heagle.

During my early pandemic commutes with creepy silent walks and empty SEPTA rides, I was convinced by an inward strain of internet discourse that the air was somehow cleaner.

This was not least thanks to the memes “Nature is Healing Itself”, which showed selected (and completely un-Covid-related) images of animals reclaiming and thriving in human-dominated spaces.

These memes come back to my mind when I look at them Strange naturewho have favourited the two-person exhibition currently on at PEEP projects. The studio-large room offers itself to feel closed. Nancy Mladenhoff and Karen Heagles paintings of animals and insects occupy the walls and cover the room with their scenes.

Mladenhoff’s pictures exude current feelings of emptiness. Her series of insect-centered acrylic works is directly inspired by the 2020 lockdown and the break in life that followed. Button-ups, jeans, and sneakers float outside like butterflies, abandoned by their porters who retreat to homes to do more comfortable things. Brightly designed, discarded shirts and pants cut with a still vivid flatness through the center of paintings, their legs and sleeves clogged with all kinds of insects; various bugs, mosquitoes, butterflies, spiders, and water bugs rummaging around and through clothing. A thickness in the solid shine of these pests and a round, illustrated quality make these fantasies almost realistic.

Abstract painting of clothes floating in a landscape surrounded by animals of various kinds entering and exiting the frame from the sides.
Nancy Mladenoff, “Flight” (2020), acrylic on canvas 36 “x 48”. See “Strange Nature” at PEEP Projects, a two-person exhibition of paintings by Nancy Mladenoff and Karen Heagle.

Pieces like “Anxiety of Hope” and “As the Crane Flies” convey a chaos of natural complaints and animate moments of action with explosions of color. On the other hand, the earthiness of “Flight” is most tangible, framed by a dirt floor and a bright blue sky. This piece felt like the centerpiece of the whole show to me – a convergence of different living beings in an unoccupied room while unoccupied clothing blows in the wind.

In contrast to Mladenhoff’s crankiness, Karen Heagle’s creatures have an aggressive quality. Three of the five paintings are of hyenas. Two of the three are in the middle of a meal, taking a moment from another animal’s meat. While the size of “Untitled (Hyena Feeding)” invites you to take a look at its fat and bloody profile, the much smaller “Hyena with Elephant Foot” also leaves a strong impression. The watercolor foundation is enhanced and defined with accents of acrylic, ink, and pencil lines. The image has a softness that contradicts the unexpected scene of nature that is taking its course. Heagles animals all exude this apathy for the viewer and behave as they will behave with or without you.

Painting of a hyena standing on a clipped elephant's foot against a swatch background.
Karen Heagle, “Hyena with Elephant Foot” (2021), acrylic, ink, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, 14 “x 11”. See “Strange Nature” at PEEP Projects, a two-person exhibition of paintings by Nancy Mladenoff and Karen Heagle.

As recently announced, Strange nature is largely an exhibition about living things and animals. Heagles “Rimbaud” is the only person to be seen, her greatest piece on the show. While the portrait isn’t actually Rimbaud, there is something in the subject’s demeanor that channels the few photos of him. The painted face of the boy with make-up resolutely connects the painting and the poet in their common strangeness. While this piece is somewhat of a marvel with its intentions, it felt out of place compared to the rest of the show’s concept.

As we all return to normal lives (whatever that means), the city’s streets and their overcrowded apathies create a discomfort resembling last year’s emptiness. Fluctuations between intense heat and lots of brief downpours bring a hyper-awareness of global warming that nature is not really healing itself. A time without people seems closer and more possible than ever.

‘Strange Nature’ can be seen at PEEP projects from June 24th to July 29th, 2021. Visits by appointment only.


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