Every period of political turbulence births its own critics and chroniclers, among the most important being satirists and caricaturists. For my vote, Natalie Niblack will be among the supreme comic interpreters of the Age of Trump which, despite the recent election result, is not yet finished. Even after Inauguration Day, Niblack is sure to remain relevant, if not lampooning that administration and its cronies, then turning back in her paintings to imagery of extreme meteorological distress connected to climate change.
For the past four years, Niblack shifted gradually from her large acrylic paintings depicting flaming oceans (“Now,” 2020) and blazing police cars (“Police Car #1,” 2020) to painted and glazed stoneware busts of elected and appointed public officials associated with the Trump regime. Building on the tradition of William Hogarth, Thomas Nast and more recently, Roger Law of “Spitting Image” BBC fame, Niblack draws on her training at Edinburgh College of Art (MFA, 1993) in Scotland and a crucial ceramic residency with another explosive realist, Tip Toland. Hand-building in the vein of Robert Arneson and Patti Warashina, Niblack may be a clay newcomer, but in one four-year period, she has arguably become the leading comic ceramic artist in the nation. She apprenticed for nine years with Terry Silva, a potter in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, and continued in her studio for another five years after Silva’s death.
While a recent show at Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Oregon focused on her climate change paintings, for our purposes, a brief discussion of her busts may shed light on answering the question, “Why haven’t there been more attacks by artists on Trump and his corrupted enablers?” Could it be fear of the topicality of such art; that it might guarantee limited shelf life? Niblack casts such concerns to the wind and bores down with full force on cast-members who are more disgusting and comic in her work than any Halloween costume, brilliantly conveying all the double-chins, feeble-mindedness and pathetic sycophancy that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Before dissecting and cheerfully crucifying the collaborators, it’s worth noting how Niblack, in an early work, was less direct but still powerful in her abbreviation of a horrible topic: mass killings of schoolchildren. “Back to School” (2016) shows a happy child clown with a nearby gun. A follow-up work is “Warmonger: Portrait of Wayne La Pierre” (2020), the National Rifle Association head under investigation for shuffling funds and indirectly responsible for the colossal arming of America — and the killing of innocent children.
As to the impeachment years, Department of Justice Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr are equally skewered in “Sycophant #1” and “Sycophant #2” (2018, 2020), whom she described in an interview as “two of the more reprehensible people on earth.” The latter is a seated bull dog with black-spotted eye and shriveled member. Niblack’s likenesses are remarkable and lifelike, with each subject squirming so as to allow the viewer a vicarious revenge and catharsis. This is the real test of successful political art as opposed to illustrational propaganda by artists such as Shepard Fairey. Niblack is not a graphic artist; she is not making posters; she is creating individual aesthetic objects capable of sustained contemplation, beyond our wretched, extended moment.
One sculpture actually rotates from mood to mood, depending which the President requires: “Rudy Tooti” (2020) is a four-faced, lidded cookie jar revolving on a turntable to the tune of “Enter the Gladiators.” Niblack captures perfectly Giuliani’s mock-outrage and terrified shouts. Another, “Mr. Miller” (2020) features Santa Monica High School’s greatest embarrassment, Stephen Miller, mastermind of the parent-child separation policy for Latin American asylum seekers, among other atrocities. Here he is depicted as a boa constrictor with a human head displaying two front vampire teeth. Surely this deserves a place in a “gallery of rogues” at some California history museum. It bookends Niblack’s “Pelosi Two-Step” (2020), a decapitated, living Trump head stomped on by pink stiletto-heel shoes and choked with a bedraggled red tie. In turn, “Pelosi Two-Step” is a pendant to an earlier effigy of the leader’s head, “Covfefe” (2017), his mouth stuffed with torn-up tweets.
Most terrifying and creepy of all, “Pink” (2017) nails “Moscow Mitch,” or Senator Mitch McConnell, face sagging and flesh melting before our eyes. His eyeglasses are the perfect touch. Niblack immortalizes the so-called “Z-list cabinet” with all the flair and élan of French masters such as Honoré Daumier and J.J. Grandville. With the passage of time and given enough bad news (sure to come), Niblack could attain their stature of greatness.
She noted in a recent interview, “Painting [the climate changes] is a coping mechanism for me ... but my true bias and anchor is in my sculptures.” One hopes for and foresees the continuing voice of this stern but witty prophet.