On ViewSoloway Gallery
Shape Shifting in the Outer Boroughs and Its Effects on the Traveler’s Perception of the Midnight Sky
September 11–October 9, 2022
Mala Iqbal’s Shape Shifting in the Outer Boroughs and Its Effect on the Traveler’s Perception of the Midnight Sky, currently on view at Soloway Gallery, channels the invisible choreographies of public spaces in its painterly handling of the city. It translates the way that we negotiate the territory of busy sidewalks or let ourselves expand under the trees in public parks into a painterly language of gesture and memory. Iqbal concretizes the momentary but vivid perceptions of strangers we capture in crowds—the tangible effects of faces, of fading voices, of the colors and silhouettes of clothing—while recording the translucent uncertainty of sightings that our memory is unable to make more permanent.
Iqbal’s painting reveals an affinity for the careful glimpse, with lineages extending back to artists like Ben Shahn, Alice Neel, George Bellows, or Reginald Marsh, who depicted the city and examined difference with erudite knowledge and care. Cities have a way of making us adopt the quick exchange of the glance; but what remains within our senses from the jostles and bumps of the crowd? What gets recorded within, beyond our knowing, that informs who we are in public space? The slow enfolding registers of detail within Iqbal’s work reveal themselves at the speed of perceiving and being perceived in the crowd. In front of New York Time Warp (2022), I’m reminded of how David Hockney talks about Masaccio, how each face belonged to someone he knew. Whether Iqbal here has drawn the faces in the crowd from observation, or like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has pieced them together from the trust of her past encounters, their distinctiveness becomes its own kind of certainty. Iqbal balances what can be memorized with structures of missed connections, depicted in unresolved imprimatura, which both act as an index of absence and also as formal moments of pause. The color sinks into or rides along the canvas in a series of flashes, each fluoresce alluding to different registers of memory, with care and tenderness emanating throughout. Iqbal’s paintings capture New York in a rare depth of familiarity, experience, and knowing that is channeled through a vernacular glance.
Public space, and how we interface within public settings, reveals itself as the soft support of each painting. New York Time Warp is an impressive use of reverse perspective. The oblique spatial composition of the painting presses the crowd up against us, lets us feel as if we can’t see over the shoulders of those closest to us, and blocks us from seeing through the gaps to the people walking along the crosswalk in the distance. With the focal point ending in us, the viewer, we have the possibility of seeing the scene from multiple angles, but Iqbal denies us this by stacking and changing the heights of each figure in the extreme foreground. In Yellow Poncho (2022), the eponymous poncho emanates as an aura of the entire body, one that interrupts the speed and anonymity of the city to attract the turning look of others. Beach Scene (2022) might express our moments of being a third wheel or the moments that we step out of a conversation to quietly listen to others.
While they share with us an experience of the city we can relate ourselves to, it is important to note that Iqbal’s paintings also record an interior and personal record of her parents, her family, and the passages of otherness and acceptance felt by a family that spoke four languages as first-generation immigrants in their home in the Bronx. Young Father (2022) portrays a father as a quiet protagonist, his youthful resilience as a student reading under a tree, dreaming of a future family. The experience of Sports Fan (2021) relies on suggestions of passage. A baseball hat worn under a hijab has the ability to both be a passage between cultures while also risking itself as a site of multiple alienations.
While generalizations are the receding tide of the gummy and formless figuration of the present moment, the traits of the people whom Iqbal depicts generate a believability formed from direct observation, flirting with the edges of caricature before subverting it into relatable empathy. Iqbal’s exhaustive drawing practice undergirds her paintings. Where others have reduced bodies to symbols, remaining a step removed from their subjects in their studios, Iqbal’s figuration closes the gap between artist and subject—where distance, or the lack thereof, is its own substance. It is a relational model of figuration, one that investigates how we are perceived, both to others and ourselves, in community. Here, difference is masterfully depicted, announcing and advocating for space and place within a family of other spaces, each a small part of the city, each a rhythmic beat that reflects the beats of others. Here, difference labors on, developing passage in the face of any hostilities.