Insects and critters pose in PEEP Projects’ mostly people-free painting show

Corey Qureshi reviews 'Strange Nature,' a two-person exhibition of lockdown-inspired paintings by Nancy Mladenoff and Karen Heagle. The show-- which Corey says elicits eerie memories of early-pandemic times-- is on view (by appointment) through July 29th, at PEEP Projects.

Abstract painting of two flying insects and abstract patterned shapes in front of a colorful geometric blurry background.
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 early-pandemic commutes of creepy silent walks and empty SEPTA rides, I was convinced by an inside-looking-out strain of internet discourse that the air was somehow cleaner.

This was in no small part thanks to the “Nature is Healing Itself” memes that showed cherry-picked (and entirely un-Covid related) images of animals reclaiming, and thriving, in human dominated spaces.

These memes come back to mind when viewing Strange Nature, the two-person exhibition currently on at PEEP Projects. The studio-sized space lends itself to feeling closed in on. Nancy Mladenoff and Karen Heagle‘s paintings of animals and insects claim the walls, overrunning the space with their scenes.


Mladenoff’s paintings broadcast topical feelings of emptiness. Her series of insect-centric acrylic works are directly inspired by 2020’s lockdown and the subsequent pause on life. Button ups, jeans, and sneakers float outside like the butterflies, abandoned by their wearers who retreat into houses for a rotation of things more comfortable. Brightly designed, discarded shirts and pants cut through the center of paintings with a flatness that’s still alive, their legs and sleeves clogged with all types of bugs; different beetles, mosquitos, butterflies, spiders, and water bugs that scavenge around and through clothes. A thickness in the solid shining of these pests and a round, illustrated quality, make these fantasies near-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”. Featured in’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 reclamation, animating moments of action with bursts of color. On the other hand, “Flight”‘s earthiness is the most tangible, framed by a ground of dirt and clear blue skies. This piece felt to me like the centerpiece of the whole show — a convergence of different living beings in an unoccupied space as unoccupied clothes blow in the wind.

Contrasting with Mladenoff’s crawliness, Karen Heagle’s creatures have an aggressive quality. Three of the five paintings are of hyenas. Two of the three are mid-meal, taking a moment from the feast of another animal’s meat. While the size of “Untitled (Hyena Feeding)” inevitably calls you in for a look at its bold and bloody profile, the much smaller “Hyena with Elephant Foot” also leaves a strong impression. It’s watercolor foundation is enhanced, more defined with accents of acrylic, ink, and pencilled lines. There’s a softness to the image that contradicts the unexpected scene of nature taking its course. Heagle’s animals all emanate this apathy to the viewer, acting how they’re going to act with or without you.

Painting of a hyena knowing on a cut-off 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 previously stated, Strange Nature is largely an exhibition about critters and animals. Heagle’s “Rimbaud” is the lone person on view, her largest piece in the show. While the portrait isn’t actually Rimbaud, there’s something in the subject’s posture that channels the few photographs of him. The boy’s applied face of makeup decidedly further pairs the painting and poet in their shared queerness. Though this piece gives you something to wonder about with its intentions, it felt out of place compared to the rest of the show’s concept.

As we all head back to normal lives (whatever that means), city streets and their crowded apathies bring on discomforts similar to last year’s emptiness. Fluctuations between violent heat and many brief downpourings bring a hyper awareness of global warming, of how nature isn’t actually healing itself. A time without humans seems closer and more possible than ever.

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