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Issue 239

Sarah Miska Paints Too Close for Comfort

At Night Gallery, Los Angeles, claustrophobic paintings of horse races meditate on risk, desire and control

BY Clare Gemima in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 30 AUG 23

With bettors’ odds of tremendous gain or major loss, competing in a sport as dangerous as horse racing can be life changing – and in some cases, life ending. In Sarah Miska’s exhibition ‘High Stakes’hyper-realistic acrylic paintings use the adrenaline-inducing event to explore risk, reward and control. Images of graphic and energetic moments the artist collects through digital research and social media are replicated, enhanced and edited, resulting in canvases that are at once intimate and engulfing, detailing moments too dangerous to get close to and too compelling to look away from. 

Sarah Miska, Juddmonte, 2023.
Sarah Miska, Juddmonte, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 101.6 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Night Gallery; photograph: Nik Massey

Night Gallery’s airy space brings out the details of each canvas. Each work in the exhibition depicts some facet of a horse race – from The Starting Gate to Post Position (both 2023)immersing the viewer in the race’s theatricality and striking costumes, the brilliantly lit images offering peeks behind the curtain. Tightly cropping her canvases to the point of discomfort, Miska renders her subject both desirable and strange. The paintings evoke the disquieting intimacy of Gnoli’s close-ups: in Trifecta (2023) three pairs of backsides – horses’ and jockeys’ - with luscious hides and jerseys, recall the voyeuristic allure of the shrouded bodies in Due dormienti (1966). With a similar sense of claustrophobia, Miska’s immobile snapshots, rendered in gleaming crisp detail, lock viewers and subjects alike in a moment of uneasy complicity. 

Silk colours worn by jockeys are emblematic of the racing legacy of the breeder of their horse. Juddmonte (2023)’s spearmint and electric pink silks represent the international thoroughbred racing enterprise of the same name, founded more than 40 years ago by the late Saudi Prince Khalid bin Abdullah. Shown from the side, the rider’s torso is raised high from his saddle as if mid-gallop, the tight frame withholding the context of either win or defeat. Miska’s compositions romanticise the seedy, cut-throat nature of racing’s gambling fanaticism, while her anxious, high-contrast compositions perfectly encapsulate its edgy energy. It’s impossible not to draw connections between a commodified equestrian pursuit and the volatile contemporary art market. As the artist told me, ‘I’m interested in who’s riding who.’ 

Sarah Miska, Post Position, 2023.
Sarah Miska, Post Position, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 182.9 × 243.8 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Night Gallery; photograph: Nik Massey

In Post Position (2023), three horses stand at their marks, set to run the race of their short and immensely competitive lives. Miska uses light and dark brown acrylic paint and gloss mediums to build a tonally defined and sleek thoroughbred coat, accentuating the animals’ powerful vigour. Equal attention has been paid to the accessories that bind them: soft brush strokes, dappled and layered, render fleecy royal blue and rich green shadows in the muzzles used, alongside blinders, to keep the horses focused and calm. Circular silver metal bit pieces attach to leather bridles held by their riders, out of frame, while dainty baby blue satin ribbons keep the horses’ tongues tied in place for safety purposes. Much like the choice to focus her images of jockeys on their attire, Miska’s hyperfocus on horse riding accessories emphasises her interest in the enactment of control – both within her own painterly craft, and in the sport that depends on awesome animal power. 

Sarah Miska, High Skates, 2023.
Sarah Miska, High Stakes, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 243.8 × 182.9 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Night Gallery; photograph: Nik Massey

High Stakes (2023), the only image that engages a horse’s gaze head on, gives the animal a sense of identity under its dramatically padded mask via their glistening, determined eyes. The suggestion of the horse’s simultaneous humanity and lack of autonomy recalls Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of the ‘embellished woman’, as introduced in Second Sex (1949). The horse’s ‘nature was present but captive, shaped by human will in accordance with man's desire’, rendered ‘more desirable when… more rigorously subjugated.’ In ‘High Stakes’ both risk and control are painted way too close for comfort.

Sarah Miska's 'High Stakes' is on view at Night Gallery, Los Angeles, until 9 September

Main image: Sarah Miska, Trifecta, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 182.9 × 152.4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Night Gallery; photograph: Nik Massey

Clare Gemima is an art ciritc who has contributed to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM and other international art journals. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant Artist mentorship program.