Duplex: It’s so great to see Two Terrors in person! Do you usually work in a diptych or triptych form?
Ryan Molenkamp: This is probably my fifth work in that format. It goes back to a piece I did in 2008 called Puget Sound. It was a big map-like piece in black and white. I have it up right now in Capitol Hill here in Seattle at V2. The space used to be a Salvation Army on 11th and Pike, in between developments; it was turned over to Velocity Dance Studio and One Reel. They are throwing together a bunch of art shows while they can in that big space. That piece was the first one I did in that format. Partly because I wanted to work really big, it’s eight by twelve feet, and I wanted to be able to move it myself. Its three eight by four-foot panels and I liked how it worked. I liked working that way but I don’t think I made another until a year ago, for Three Terrors that showed at Out of Sight. Puget Sound was designed to hang with the panels right up next to each other, but I like them better with a slight separation.
D: The separation is a nice reminder of the real physical separation of the mountains. Hood and Bachelor are not actually that close to each other. Speaking of, these are Oregon mountains!
RM: I was thinking about that too, Washington has five volcanoes, but Oregon has more than that. There’s the three Sisters, Crater Lake, Hood, Bachelor, but there is even more.
D: Is your Duplex show exclusively Oregon volcanoes?
RM: No, I am still a little undecided, I’m not sure if I want to make it all volcanoes. I am making some new work that is a little different.
D: Yeah, I can see your color palette is shifting a little here in the room. A lot more cool blues.
RM: Some of that came out of doing these glacier pieces, but my palette shifts around. I think over the course of the years, it doesn’t feel that drastic. In some ways, I am going back to colors I’ve used a long time ago, but now I’m using them differently. I’ll get on a kick for a year or more where I only do black and white, or grayscale work before I go back to color. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve gone back and forth. But now I do it more rapidly with just a couple of pieces, then switch back.
D: Does it feel like a palette cleanser?
RM: I think it was early on, and it is still refreshing. When you are just working in grayscale and black and white, it makes you see what you are doing a little better. It takes a little more of the emotion out of it, it definitely has its own emotion but people respond differently to color. They can just be drawn to certain blues or reds, but in this black and white, you don’t really get that. You get people who are into that sort of thing, but people don’t respond in that same way. It’s nice that way.
I was reading a quote from Willem de Kooning when he was talking about doing his first major show in New York and making sure he did a black and white show. It was that thing; he wanted people to see how he actually painted it, without getting tied into the emotion of color. That resonated. But I love working with color and I always will.
D: Have you ever experienced an active volcano, maybe in Alaska or St. Helens?
RM: I was three when Mt. St. Helens erupted. It was certainly a big moment in my childhood even though I don’t remember the eruption itself, but hearing stories, seeing photos, and we visited the park as soon as we could and seeing the flood lines in the trees from the lahars, pumice, and ashes. One of my favorite books as a kid was a flipbook of time-lapse photos of Mt. St. Helens exploding. That was a powerful moment.
D: Is all of your work inspired by actual locations?
RM: Some of the volcanoes are actual volcanoes. For the diptych, essentially the outlines are based on photos of Mt. Hood and Bachelor, the contour of the mountain from a certain angle. Everything else is improvised from there. That’s a bit of that play with reality, they are obviously not this close together and you never see them like that. I like doing things based on actual subject matter, but also making it a painting, and letting the paint take over. Redoubt Alaska (Fear of Volcanoes 86) is based on a photo of the Redoubt Volcano in Alaska; it’s very close to the water. All those shapes along the bottom, none of that is realistic to the actual landscape, but the cloud and the shape of the mountain overall are realistic to that. From there I play with it.
D: I’m really interested in River Cascade, it seems to have such a different perspective; it’s a lot wider.
RM: Some of these are straight from sketches I made, no realistic place. Some of these smaller pieces are portraits of volcanoes or peaks. I’ve been doing more portrait style or aerial views with impossible perspectives. It’s kind of a weird fisheye thing. I like playing with confusing the eye a little bit. Hopefully, it’s interesting and you can get a lot of information in there, even if it’s not a realistic angle.
D: This piece has a figure, that’s not something we’ve been seeing in your volcano pieces.
RM: That’s true, and it’s a very new thing. I have painted figures in the past and I’ve done some works, usually based on photos that have figures in them. And that is actually the case with this one. This is a new series that I just started. They are all based on photographs based on Alaska Geographic that we used to have a subscription to when I was a kid. My dad was in the salmon business so we lived in Alaska, all through the ‘80’s. I’ve continued to be fascinated by Alaska, but I really enjoyed looking at this periodical when I was a kid. I was thinking a lot about growing up and about my dad. About my continued fascination with the mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. About environmental impact. Alaska, of course, is a really good example of climate change and how quickly most of the glaciers are receding. There a few that are growing, but they are outliers. There was a spot called Portage Glacier near Anchorage, we used to go to a lot when I was a kid. They had this new visitor’s center they were building. At the old spot, you could look out and see the glacier on the far side of a lake that would come around a bend. There were all these big icebergs in the lake; it was just a really cool space. That was probably around 1985. I think ten years later or less the glacier had already receded behind the bend, so you couldn’t see it from the new visitor’s center and you had to hike to it. I did a piece about that very thing five or six years ago. It was a diptych based on a photo of me as a kid hold a big chunk of ice from the lake, and the same shot imagined what it would look like now without anything in the lake, very dreary. That was my climate change environmental activism art piece. So I have been thinking about that stuff for a while; and how much the landscape affected you as a kid. I’m not entirely sure where this series is going yet, but I have three pieces with figures so far. I’ve always found figure drawing somewhat tedious, trying to capture a thing realistically. Even when I sit down to draw a landscape, I tend to start abstracting it and make it something new. These more portrait type pieces are very flat. They get more pattern-y in way too. Sometimes it’s a little more abstract.
D: The patterns remind me of the Chimney Bluffs State Park in Upstate New York.
RM: Geology is a major influence on my work. I actually considered doing a geology major in college for a little while, so some of the line work definitely reference various strata, even if it not realistic.
D: Some of the line work is more reminiscent of aerial farm views. It feels like, in these pieces, you are acknowledging the presence of man.
RM: It definitely ties in with that perspective thing, where you are looking down but then it goes a little bit quicker into a landscape off in the distance. Those square sections and some of the black marks are intended to look like manmade marks. I’ve always been interested in how we develop the landscape and how the landscape vanishes. Some of the marks are thinking about farmland and how patterns form. It refers to that without being too specific. Then those lines sort of turn into various strata. I always want people to interpret and enjoy the paintings on their own terms. If they can get there on their own, the experience is better.
I think you can make really powerful work about environmental politics, but I’m not interested in doing propaganda art. There is a history of Pacific Northwest artists making art about the impact we’ve had on the environment, but most of the work I’ve been making is a lot more subtle. Of course, that piece I made about the glacier receding was a lot more direct. The volcano pieces came about by me thinking about how were impacting the earth but also how the earth could just destroy us. It is a bit of a metaphor to some degree.