I first learned of Maggi Hambling from her polarizing public sculptures. A bust of writer Oscar Wilde lounges in a green granite coffin, smoking a cigarette and laughing at passersby behind St. Martins in the Field in London. A nude, silvered bronze statue of 18th-century feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft emerges from an undulating silver plinth, whose sides jut out like free-floating hips, in North London. There’s an irreverence to those sculptures, a cheekiness that refuses one-dimensional worship. But there’s nothing cheeky about Real Time, her first exhibition in New York City, now on view at Marlborough Gallery. Instead, the swirling, gestural, and surprisingly moving landscapes, seascapes, and portraits offer more somber reflections on climate change and death.
In indigo, black, and gray, Hambling’s paintings blend elements of abstract action painting with unmistakable representations of mountains, rivers, and animals. “Edge XIX” (2021) greets visitors like an avalanche in slow motion. A skeleton of a mountain in the background, outlined in gray, slowly fades as pieces of it, rendered in short, thick brushstrokes of indigo, tumble to the foreground. The mountain seems to be melting before our eyes. More than innumerable statistics and documentaries, Hambling’s abstractions in Real Time induce emotionally visceral reactions to the impacts of climate change.
“Wall of Water I” (2010) creates a similar sense of creeping disaster, this time more like a tsunami inching toward the viewer. Bits of yellow curve around the black and blues, perhaps infusing a bit of sunlight into the darkness, in terms of both color and subject. “Wall of Water XII” (2012) incorporates similar arch-like shapes, but with a bit of fuchsia to invigorate the blue.
A series of rectangular works line the narrow halls of the gallery’s first floor, including “Edge XIV”(2021) and the similar but more faded “Edge XV” (2021). The shape of these works, reminiscent of Chinese scroll paintings, matches the shape of their setting, creating a satisfying symmetry, though the pairing is slightly monotonous. The sensation of being in the path of a flood or an avalanche is bracing the first few times, but the repetition loses its power by the tenth.
The exhibition recovers that power on the second floor, with pieces such as “The Last Baboon” (2018), in which smeared black lines resembling fingers stretch across the canvas, dissolving as they reach the edge. The theme of animals and their death reappears in “ Baby elephant abandoned” (2019). Hambling’s brushstrokes suggest that the animal has curled in on itself for comfort; the loneliness is palpable.
“I’ve never set out to be controversial,” Hambling told Frieze in 2021 of the sculptures that critics have called “a Tussaud’s Wilde,” or “insulting” to Mary Wollstonecraft. Those works may be fun to debate, but their impact doesn’t linger. Yet, without being overly pedantic, Hambling’s paintings nudge viewers to consider what we will be losing if humankind continues on its current path, and how much we’ve already lost.
Maggi Hambling: Real Time continues at Marlborough Gallery (545 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.