“I hope the kink comes through,” said artist Sarah Miska (b. 1983) in her Los Angeles studio. “The sport is all bridles, harnesses, bits, leather. My work can seem incredibly conservative on the surface, but it’s meant to be moderately sexual.”
The sport in question is horse racing. The artist had recently put the finishing touches on a series of new paintings focused on jockeys and racehorses for “High Stakes,” her second solo show with Los Angeles’s Night Gallery, which opens this weekend (July 8–September 9).
Over the past few years, Miska, a Sacramento native, has focused her paintings on imagery culled from the equestrian world, cropping in on slightly askew and chance moments that happen to arise in this highly regimented niche world: tightly braided horsetails fraying, gleaming riding boots muddied, a glossy bun come loose. The paintings can be a lighthearted moment of comic reprieve from the exhaustingly conservative aesthetics of the horse world.
“Quite frankly, equestrian sports can be boring because they’re so controlled, and these flawed, imperfect moments are beautiful,” said Miska, “These images are also meant to be humorous, since, if you’re considering a jockey’s point of view, they’re in the most awkward, submissive, hilarious pose when they’re riding.”
These winkingly provocative paintings have found recent enthusiasm at galleries on both coasts. Last year, Miska saw solo debuts with Night Gallery and New York’s Lyles & King. Her paintings are also included in the permanent collections of the Institute for Contemporary Art, Miami, and the Long Museum, Shanghai.
Horses have long been a source of fascination and fantasy for Miska, who described her young self as an “aspiring horse girl.” Like many children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, she was smitten with and all things Lisa Frank, and dreamed of owning a horse. For several of her tween years, she even took riding lessons—but the expense of the sport kept her from ever fully integrating into the horse world.
“My parents did their best to try to allow me to ride,” she explained. “They even bought these two incredibly terrible horses. One was too old to ride and would fart the entire way around the track. The other one would take off running with me and would kick and buck and lay down on us. I think she was abused by her previous owner.”
The horses, which had been purchased from a friend for about a thousand dollars (practically free by equestrian standards), proved too expensive to maintain and Miska’s parents sold the pair within a year. “It was all based on fantasy—the fantasy of my parents being able to provide this dream to their daughter and the fantasy fed to children like myself,” she explained, saying that she “loved it, but my parents bore the brunt of owning these animals.”
Miska, who earned her MFA from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in 2014, began experimenting with equestrian imagery a few years ago, considering the similarities between the riders’ hairstyles with the styling of the horses’ tails.
“I was thinking about the buns and all the accoutrements that come with that, including the little hair net, barrette, and a bow, contrasted with the horses’ rear ends,” she said. “It was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but then I found myself diving deeper and deeper.”
Her new paintings in “High Stakes” delve into the risk and reward associated with the world of horse racing, and explore the intense relationships between jockeys and owners, and jockeys and the horses themselves. Several canvases in the exhibition focus on the colorful silk patterns donned by jockeys at races and hint at age-old dynamics of power and stature. “The owners of these horses have specific silks that have belonged to their family generations, at times,” Miska said. “So whoever the jockey is will wear that silk, literally representing the family.”
In Miska’s fascination with magnifying details of hair and fabric, the Italian artist Domenico Gnoli comes to mind. “Gnoli died so young. I wanted to see more of his work and decided I was going to try to build on that legacy,” she said. “His work did something very specific with texture. I love that it had to do with theater and the movement of clothes.”
Another similarity to Gnoli, she noted, is her use of acrylic paint. “I was trained in oil, and I love it, but I am a mother and when my child was very small, I had limited time in the studio and could not wait around,” she said. “Oil is so revered, but Gnoli worked in acrylic, and it feels nice to be affirmed.”
In making her paintings, Miska works rigorously and meticulously. She sources her imagery from social media, zooming in and cropping images on small details she finds, and editing the images on her phone. She then grids out her compositions in sketches or on the canvas itself, working with an attention to detail that is, Miska acknowledged, similar to the very equestrian sports she explores.
Asked why she prefers found imagery, Miska explained that she chooses not to attend racing events at the moment; she never competed as a child and now her absence is a more conscientious decision. That may not last forever, she said. There are certain photographs she might have to take herself—“horse buttholes, quite frankly,” she said. “I think it’s the funniest thing and I love to laugh when I make work but no one posts those pictures.”
Linger with Miska’s works for a while and another similarity to Gnoli arises: the paintings brim with a sense of the perverse. “Everything in the equestrian world is meticulous, regimented, and controlled. There are power dynamics at play on so many levels. The rider is controlling a giant beast that is very wild and free and intense—that could kill a person. Yet the horse functions very well under this version of strict control,” Miska said. “Of course, that relates to the way I paint.”
Miska admits that there is an undeniable allure to the world of horse racing, one that compels her to engage with it. “I love the intrigue of it and I still want to be part of it. I feel like a voyeur looking in through the outside,” she said.
She doesn’t always like what she sees, however. The painting Starting Gate welcomes visitors to the exhibition at Night Gallery. It shows a horse, still behind the gates of the racetrack. Its eyes are frightened and alert in a way that is reminiscent of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare and Picasso’s Guernica, but here frozen in total stillness.
“The poor horse is trapped and yet ready to burst out,” she said. “All these animals know is to run, and yet they have to anticipate what’s about to happen. It’s abrupt and aggressive, and I try to harness that energy within that work.”