Nikki Maloof was born in 1985 and raised in Peoria Illinois. She graduated from undergrad at Indiana University and received her MFA from Yale in 2011. She lives and works in Western Massachusettes. She is represented by Jack Hanley Gallery in NYC.
Interview with Nikki Maloof
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Nikki, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
I grew up in Peoria Illinois in a big family of 5 daughters. I was the typical moody middle child. I was the one sneaking away from the others to be alone in my imagination world. In some ways not much has changed. I always feel that I didn’t so much choose to become an artist as it chose me. Making art, drawing, creating, was the one thing that came completely naturally to me. It was my one super power.
Can you walk us through your creative process and planning stages for the final paintings? Are the composition planned beforehand?
I spend a lot of time planning my works and thinking about compositions. For weeks before I start a large painting I am creating various drawings and small paintings which zero in on an idea, refining it along the way. It is only until I have done the preparatory work that I can execute a large painting. The small works become the blueprint and give me the confidence to execute a large work rather quickly, preserving the freshness and intensity of the moment of making.
Can you speak to the presence of Vanitas-like themes, such as the wilting or dead flowers, and the tiny skulls in your work?
Vanitas theme’s are always tongue in cheek for me. I like that they are signifiers of historical painting and that their place in art history was to depict the ultimate topic: death and impermanence. Yet when I project them into my world, the seriousness becomes absurd. That tension between the silly and the serious is a theme I return to a lot.
Your work evokes a sense of the uncanny—serious paintings depicting friendly scenes akin to familiar children's book illustrations, and permeated with a sense of anxiety. Is there an overall mood or feeling that you hope to instill in the viewer through these connections?
I think I have always been attracted to art that pits multiple feelings against each other, like dark comedies and sad pop songs. The tension between multiple sensations within one artwork for me, symbolizes the human existence. We are always experiencing multiple emotions at once, and its a constant juggling act.
Have you always worked figuratively? When did you begin working in the way you are now? What was the evolution of your most recent series?
I have always worked figuratively. My brain just thinks in images. I used to paint people a lot more but became interested in these animal stand-ins as a way of getting away from the heaviness that figure painting can sometimes get bogged down in. I also like the symbolic potential of animals as well as their many forms. They lend themselves to a lot of discovery in a way that I wasn’t finding through painting human forms.
Congratulations on your recent show at Shane Campbell gallery in Chicago, Separation Anxiety. This series of paintings seems to include a few new characters, including a black horse in a large painting with a vivid yellow sky in the background. Can you tell us a bit more about this show and the new work? Where do the ideas and characters originate from?
I came to this current body of work through contemplating domesticity. It seemed appropriate to use domesticated animals in interiors as a way of exploring my desires for a home and my recent move away from the city. I became attracted to the idea of animals which are both at home in a domestic space but also trapped within it, embedded in the walls and motifs.
Are the characters in your domestic scenes particular cats or dogs, or are the scenes from a particular location?
The characters and locations are not specific to real life but they are influenced by the world around me. I think I collect ideas from my day to day life, often subconsciously. Most of these paintings were made after I moved away from the city so I definitely absorbed a lot of specifics from my new location. For instance, watching the sun setting every day, noticing patterns on rugs and wallpaper, plant-life and New England architecture are all things that trickled in by osmosis.
Do you use any particular reference material when planning a painting like photographs, or your own pets?
I don’t have any pets and I try to stay away from specific photos. I find the closer I look at the real world, I lose something. I have come to realize that the images are stronger when they are more about the way my mind generates these animals rather than looking at an actual animal. I do on occasion look at images for specific objects or aspects about the characters that my brain cant come up with but for the most part they originate from my head. Sometimes I look to favorite paintings from art history for ideas.
How do your watercolors and collages relate to the graphite drawings and paintings?
The collages and drawings originated from a desire to push my compositions further and to simply worth with different materials. Sometimes I just need a break from paint and canvas. Working with dry media and cutting up things can be a great way of getting out of your usual way of making. It’s all about satisfying whatever creative urge I happen to have that day.
What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
I have a very long list of influences but some that always come to mind are Munch, Matisse, Hockney, Alex Katz, Nicole Eisenman, Kerry James Marshall, and Catherine Murphy. Some other artists that I am super inspired by at the moment are Heidi Hahn, Jonathan Gardner, Sanya Kantarovsky, Louis Fratino and Jennifer Packer.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
I’ve been lucky to encounter some pretty amazing people in my life. Barry Gealt was my teacher in undergrad. He is probably one of the biggest catalysts to my becoming an artist. He made me believe it was possible and that I had the power to do it. I also think just being around other painter-friends is a huge influence. We exchange ideas and help stoke each others fire. My friend Danielle Orchard is my main painting side-kick. I like to say she’s my personal painting editor. She’s a genius and an amazing artist. I send her countless images of things I’m working on for her approval. We are constantly talking about shows we’ve seen and artists we like, paint colors to try.
What is a typical day like for you?
On a typical day I wake up and take care of my daughter. We have breakfast and hang out for a while until and then she hangs with her Grandma while I go to my studio for most of the day. Then I listen to the radio on my drive through the winding roads of my town. I get to my studio and paint until the afternoon then get back, usually while the sun is setting, and then I have dinner with my family and wind down the day. I am a creature of habit. I like my little routines.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace?
One of the things I like the most about being an artist is having a studio. I think I’ve always been a person who loves to carve a place out of the world for herself. Even as a child I was always searching for a secret spot to call my own. My studio is my haven. I like to keep it neat. I like to arrange it just so. The best time is when I just arrive and its morning. I get to see what I left there the day before and view it with fresh eyes.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
I used to be more rigid about my studio practice but I have learned to be more flexible now that I have a baby. I just have to get shit done no matter how much time I have or how little sleep I got the night before. I am more focused and less distracted than I was when I had all the time in the world. One thing that does throw me off is my stupid phone! I have to hide it from myself.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you?
Poetry became a huge influence though I did not grow up enjoying it. Catherine Murphy turned me on to Elizabeth Bishop when I was in grad school and I ended up taking some poetry courses. It totally changed my world. I am not eloquent enough to fully explain what it did, but something about the compression within a poem, the multiple angles that you can look at it, the lack of concrete “meaning” within a poem opened me up to looking at painting in the same way. I also love John Ashberry, James Merrill, and of course, Emily Dickinson.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I am a total podcast geek. I listen to SO many podcasts but mostly when I have gotten to the point in working where I don’t have to focus as hard. Some favorites are Fresh Air (obviously), Hidden Brainm and On Being. Lately I’ve also been listening to Sound and Vision which is a nice podcast about visual arts.
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc.
Well, I am still a recent transplant out of the city, but so far I can say that living where I do has definitely impacted me in that I feel a general higher sense of happiness and less stress. I have always been someone who enjoys observing nature so being surrounded by it, noticing its nuances is hugely enriching. I think that stuff trickles into the work in ways you cant always tell right away.
What is one of the biggest challenges to being a working artist?
Being able to afford to be an artist is a big one. NYC in particular is becoming an increasingly difficult place for young artists to sustain a productive practices. Everyone is running around trying to make ends meet on top of the difficulty of making good work. It can be really stressful.
How do you view social media and how has a particular platform impacted you as an artist?
I think the art world has benefitted from it. It’s an amazing tool for keeping up with whats happening. I love knowing what people are up to and what shows are opening where. I don’t know how I would stay on top of things without it!
You are based in Massachusetts, but show all over the world, including Jack Hanley Gallery, in New York City. Can you speak to staying involved, exhibiting, and making work while living outside of a major art city? What are some of the pros and cons?
For me the biggest pro’s are the ability to live in a place that I love, afford a large studio, and experience nature and beauty. I have more freedom here to work in my studio partially because I also live near my husbands family, so childcare was no longer an issue. That was a huge deal for me. The con’s are obviously, distance from the things I love to do in NYC, like see art and being around my favorite artists but I am not so far that I can’t still do that. I make it a point to get into the city regularly.
You worked as an artist assistant to Peter Halley in New York City, can you tell us a bit about how working for an artist affected your own practice? What were some of the biggest takeaways?
Peter hired me around when I moved to NYC after school. I was super excited to work for him. I also didn’t have a job so it was a big relief. Being in his studio every day definitely changed my life. I got to observe the way he thinks about his work and the way he conducts his studio. He has a plethora of knowledge about the art history, the art world, and how to handle various professional situations. I think about many experiences I had there on a daily basis. Young artists benefit so much from getting to apprentice with established artists. It really prepared me for being in the real world. Not to mention, I got to be amongst some amazing people there.
Can you talk a bit about balancing being a new mom and a very prolific artist? Its truly inspiring!
I had a lot of anxiety about the idea of being a mom and an artist before I actually became a mom. As women mature in their careers its impossible to not constantly hear about how difficult having a child will make things. When my daughter was born and I began to start working again, I realized that in actuality, you just have to find solutions for difficulties the best you can. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. These life changes propel you in ways you cant know until they occur, and often the benefits aren’t discussed. I am happier now than I was before she was born. I also feel like it made me more productive! I work harder to prove that I can. Of course, having support is crucial. My partner and I are always striving to help each other achieve our dreams. That is a critical part of making it work for sure.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
Now that I have a yard, I am so excited to finally have a garden. I also love cooking for friends which also goes hand in hand with having a garden so thats a double win!
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I am curating a show with Louis Fratino that I am super excited about. Our show is centered on flower paintings, something we have shared a love for. It’s called “ A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose” and it will open June 24th at Jack Hanley Gallery.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Nikki and her work, check out her website.