Whitehot Magazine

Sarah Alice Moran: Thirst Trap

My Pet Ram: Sarah Alice Moran, Thirst Trap, 2024, installation view


By SARAH LUBIN March 9, 2024

Thirst Trap” is Sarah Alice Moran’s first solo exhibition of paintings in New York City, now on view at My Pet Ram gallery in the Lower East Side. The native New Yorker is showing work that is personal and revealing of the influences that have contributed to her life experience and painting evolution. She has created a magical world that is of her own invention including a cast of characters (fawns, snakes, owls, women) that she has returned to again and again in her recent work. There is an exploration of motherhood, relationships, interiority and the complexities of love. In particular, these paintings ask us to ponder the essence of nurturing. 

The show consists of eight acrylic paintings on canvas, ranging in size from 11x14” to 40x60.” Immediately apparent in all the work is the celestial setting that surrounds the various figurative scenes. The paintings are all situated at night, evoking a dreamy atmosphere. The night sky is depicted in watery pools of blue and violet washes, which allow the yellows of the ubiquitously sprinkled stars to glow. The visual effect recalls medieval and early Renaissance ceiling frescoes where the gold leaf stars are set against a deep blue lapis background. In such works, the heavenly constellations are a setting for divine presence. Here constellations meander throughout the paintings and morph from more articulated star shapes to droplets of breastmilk to the dots on a sleeping fawn’s coat. The paintings all become linked through Moran’s magical conceit.

Sarah Alice Moran, Ghost, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 32 x 40 inches

She works intuitively and quickly to capture the essence of the idea. Despite being inspired by Renaissance and Baroque works for poses and compositional ideas, the speed and spontaneity of Moran’s method is a deliberate updating of painterly process. She veers away from the laborious techniques of tempera and oil painting used in older paintings to enhance her immediate connection to the energy of the subject. She paints by layering multiple thin washes of acrylic paint which help to enrich the depth of color while retaining the whimsy of the imagery. She then paints with a dry brush for final touches. She retains a certain amount of  naturalism in the figures while allowing for a Mannerist exaggeration of proportion and playfully adding cartoonish details. The dissolving effects of the watery acrylics and the use of a squeeze bottle add a casualness to certain elements such as the quick zigzags for tiger stripes or individual drips for stars. 

Juxtaposed with the dark blues of the night skies are the complementary oranges and beiges of many figures. This chromatic opposition contributes to the ambivalent intimacy established between them. There are often female figures with animals, both realistic and invented. The figures all inhabit a shallow space close to the surface of the canvas that adds to a sense of theatricality and performance. Fallen stars lay flat on the ground like cutouts of cardboard. A woman with six breasts (and a recent mani-pedi) may be nursing an animal as in Waxing Gibbous or Dusk to Dawn, or a female figure may herself be suckling from a tiger or snake (Star Gazer, Alpha Serpentis). While the act of breastfeeding seems like a tender connection between a woman and fawn in one painting (Waxing Gibbous), it turns into a violent clash in another (Ghost) where an owl grips a snake with its talons, while the snake either nurses (or bites?) in return. 

Moran’s allusions to art historical references add to the visual impact of the work. Star Gazer and Thirst Trap (Zebra), call to mind the Capitoline Wolf with the figures of Romulus and Remus nursing underneath. The allusion to this iconic symbol of antiquity reminds us that a personal mythology may have something universal in its depths. In Alpha Serpentis there is another direct evocation of earlier art, here to centuries of depictions of the Virgin Mary. We see a woman kneeling on the ground and looking up toward a snake that hovers above her head in the shape of an arch. In Christian iconography an arch above the figure of the Virgin Mary was often used as a framing device to enclose and sanctify the mother of God. Here Moran plays with such iconography by placing a snake (symbol of original sin) floating above like an archway. It is the snake who represents the nurturer here, as the aforementioned stars are emitted out of its (human) breasts, showering the woman below. Moran creates contradictions and affectionately skewers symbolic imagery and archetypal concepts.

Sarah Alice Moran, Thirst Trap (Zebra), 2024, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 60 inches

In this mystical and nocturnal environment, the bright stars represent a source of nourishment, connection, and intimacy by their depiction as a kind of mother’s milk, whether from an animal to a human, human to an animal or anthropomorphic creatures to each other. Each pairing of figures has a tension, where one figure represents a counterpoint to the other. What appear to be human breasts appear in a snake, an owl, a tiger, and humanoid women with six packs of mammaries. The women figures who nurse from other animals are all dressed in bodysuits that match the animals who feed them, emphasizing the communion between them. The milk is not always benevolent, at times turning into a toxic green substance, at odds with the softer earth tones of the scenes. Despite provoking a certain amount of titillation, the paintings are not really calling for the viewers’ sexual attention but instead are depicting an activity which tends to be private and devoid of an invitation for outside engagement.  

Themes of nurturing and motherhood are central themes but there is a broader subtext of ideas that, while serious, lend a certain levity to the whole subject. The lightness of touch in the application of paint reinforces this feeling. There is a humor around the idea of breastfeeding and around the weightiness of mythology in general. The term “thirst trap” refers to the type of photo posted on social media meant to elicit sexual attention. But here, Moran twists that idea into questioning the different kinds of discomfort and attractions that we are often confronted with in our relationships with others. Breastfeeding becomes a metaphor for an exchange of magical powers but also the inevitable imbalance of relationships. “Thirst Trap” plays on the concepts of desire and need, but also entrapment and depletion.

“Sarah Alice Moran: Thirst Trap,” My Pet Ram, 48 Hester St. New York, NY. Through March 24, 2024. WM 


Sarah Lubin

Sarah Lubin is an artist based in Boston. She most recently had a solo exhibition with Nancy Margolis Gallery in New York City. 

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