Insects and Creatures Pose in PEEP Projects’ Primarily Peopleless Painting Exhibition

Corey Qureshi reviews “Strange Nature,” a two-person exhibition of lockdown-inspired paintings by Nancy Mladenhoff and Karen Heagle. The show – which Corey says evokes eerie memories of the early days of the pandemic – is on view (by appointment) until July 29, at PEEP Projects.

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

During my first pandemic trips of spooky silent walks and empty SEPTA walks, I was convinced by a strain of internet talk that the air was somehow cleaner.

This was in large part thanks to “Nature Heals Herself” memes which showed selected images (and entirely unrelated to Covid) of animals reclaiming and thriving in human-dominated spaces.

These memes come to mind when viewing Strange nature, the exhibition for two people currently at PEEP Projects. The studio-sized space lends itself to a feeling of confinement. Nancy Mladenhoff and Karen Heagle’s paintings of animals and insects claim the walls, invading the space with their scenes.

Mladenhoff’s paintings diffuse current feelings of emptiness. His series of insect-centric acrylic works are directly inspired by the lockdown of 2020 and the break that followed in life. Buttons, jeans and sneakers float out like butterflies, abandoned by their wearers who retreat into homes for a more comfortable spinning of things. Brightly colored discarded shirts and pants cut the center of the paintings with ever-living flatness, their legs and sleeves clogged with all manner of insects; different beetles, mosquitoes, butterflies, spiders and water bugs that rummage around and through clothing. A thickness in the solid shine of these parasites and a round and illustrated quality, make these fantasies almost realistic.

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

Songs like “Anxiety of Hope” and “As the Crane Flies” convey a chaos of natural recuperation, enlivening moments of action with bursts of color. On the other hand, the earthy side of “Flight” is most tangible, framed by a dirt floor and clear blue sky. This piece seemed to me to be the centerpiece of the whole show – a convergence of different living things in an unoccupied space as unoccupied clothes blow in the wind.

Contrasting with Mladenhoff’s crawliness, Karen Heagle’s creatures have an aggressive quality. Three of the five paintings represent hyenas. Two of the three are at mid-meal, taking a moment to feast on the meat of another animal. While the size of “Untitled (Hyena Feeding)” inevitably invites you to take a peek at its bold and bloody profile, the much smaller “Hyena with Elephant Foot” leaves a strong impression as well. Her watercolor foundation is enhanced, more defined with accents of acrylic, ink and pencil lines. There is a sweetness in the picture that contradicts the unexpected scene of nature taking its course. Heagle animals all emanate this apathy to the viewer, acting like they’re going to act with or without you.

Painting of a knowing hyena on a cut elephant foot in front of a colorfield background.
Karen Heagle, “Hyena with Elephant Foot” (2021), acrylic, ink, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, 14 “x 11”. Featured in “Strange Nature” at PEEP Projects, a two-person exhibition of paintings by Nancy Mladenoff and Karen Heagle.

As stated previously, Strange nature is largely an exhibition about bugs and animals. Heagle’s “Rimbaud” is the only person on view, his biggest piece in the exhibition. If the portrait is not really Rimbaud, there is something in the posture of the subject which channels the few photographs of him. The boy’s made-up face decidedly associates painting and the poet more in their common strangeness. While this piece gives you plenty to wonder about its intentions, it just 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 streets and their crowded apathies are causing ailments similar to last year’s emptiness. The fluctuations between severe heat and many brief downpours bring a hyper-awareness of global warming, of how nature doesn’t heal itself. A time without humans seems closer and more possible than ever.

‘Strange Nature’ is on view at PEEP Projects from June 24 to July 29, 2021. Visits are by appointment only.

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