Post Road Magazine #35

Relic of Landscape and Cathedrals of Desire

Michelle Muldrow

Relic of Landscape (2006-2009)

The Relic of Landscape series developed from my need to understand Rust Belt America, using the landscape painting genre as a historical and social launching point. I began my series Relic of Landscape , following my relocation from San Francisco, California to Cleveland, Ohio. This landscape abruptly challenged me with its Rust Belt allure and faded grandeur, a sumptuous seduction, while contrasted with the stark reality of a region in chronic economic decline. Surrounded by ruin and relics of a golden industrial past now long gone, I found myself in a place burdened by its own history.

Confounded by my own desire to paint these ruins, I sought to understand how this exquisite and once thriving region declined so dramatically. I adopted the composition strictures of the aesthetic movement, the Picturesque, using the theories of William Gilpin and Claude Lorrain, and applied them to contemporary Cleveland landscapes.

By conversing with the Picturesque, as a historical departure point, I presented decaying factories and overgrown brownfields as “ruin.” I embraced the impulse to romanticize “ruin,” using its aesthetic format as a seductive tool and also as a social commentary. The juxtaposition of the arbitrary rules of painting against the stagnant and looming shadows of these old industries captured my frustrations when trying to understand such a beautiful region of America.

In a city that struggles with survival and the burden of its history, the paintings reflect Cleveland’s past economic landscape of an industrial era, using an aesthetic theory that has long been considered passé. With this body of work I struggled to translate these concepts into a visual language to fit the historical paradigm and understand the present struggles of a Rust Belt city.

Cathedrals of Desire (2010-2014)

“Cathedrals of Desire” investigates the experience of the repulsion and seduction of the American landscape. The paintings of big box stores are intended to elicit fear and awe at the vast American consumer landscape. This body of work incorporates the landscape painting tradition with the adopted Sublime of the influences of Bierstadt and Manifest Destiny that has become an overriding element of American identity. This is also reflective of the contemporary as well as historical implications of what those ideals of Manifest Destiny and consumerism represent.

The embrace of the Sublime is inspired by the theories of Edmund Burke’s treatise on the Sublime and its relationship with terror. This, paired with the concept of the divine power of the Sublime, heavily influenced my depiction of these consumer spaces as Cathedrals of Desire. These environments represent not only the actual structural space and overwhelming chaos of goods, but also the psychology and vernacular of American consumerism. The obtrusive massive structures built with no attempt at aesthetic beauty reveal the most naked of American consumer desires. Cathedrals of Desire is an attempt to respond to this landscape by obviating the contrast between the mundane and the dramatic; the absurd experience of both comfort and the profane.

I apply philosophical ideas to American landscape painting, using historical precedents and imbuing the contemporary experience to reach an understanding of America. In my work, the contemporary is an important factor. My goal is to isolate that interstitial moment when the critical interpretation of an interior space becomes the emotional experience of landscape. I am searching for that moment when the assessment of information succumbs to the overwhelmed state of emotions and when the cultural critique becomes an experience independent of the imagery.

A reference point of mine is Thomas Cole’s painting “Oxbow.” His intent in “Oxbow” was to protest the loss of the wilderness in North America, yet to the viewer today, the dramatic wild vista and the beautiful pastoral farmland reads as a romantic beautiful landscape. When does that moment come when an emotional state overrides the critical and the critical is no longer part of the dialogue? I paint that moment.

There is a relationship with seduction and culpability that is an underlying theme within all of my work. Pushing a transcendent experience through paint, my technique in Cathedrals of Desire is purposefully florid and seductive with garish color, delicate washes juxtaposed against thick expressive strokes. I want the viewer to lose sense of the subject matter, to render the viewer from a critical to a pleasurable state in response to color and tactile surface. By creating an atmosphere that leaves the audience captivated, but their critical faculties overwhelmed, the paintings become a complicit act and a subversive seduction, reflective of my desire for transcendence in these cathedrals of consumption. I look for reprieve from the reality of these consumer landscapes and escape in surrogates. This surrogate Sublime is my American experience.

Michelle Muldrow, Blight and Consumption Bedford Heights (Relic of Landscape Series), 2009, Gouache on Paper, 22" x 34"

Michelle Muldrow, Grown-In NE Ohio (Relic of Landscape Series), 2009, Gouache on Paper, 22" x 34"

Michelle Muldrow, The Crumbling Form (Relic of Landscape Series), 2009, Gouache on Paper, 24.5" x 22.5"

Michelle Muldrow, New Pastoral (Relic of Landscape Series), 2009, Gouache on Paper, 27" x 16"

Michelle Muldrow, Dead Mall NE Ohio (Relic of Landscape Series), 2009, Gouache on Paper, 22" x 34"

Michelle Muldrow, Difficult Harmony (Relic of Landscape Series), 2009, Gouache on Paper, 30 " x 13.5"

Michelle Muldrow, Nature with Architecture in its Grasp (Relic of Landscape Series), 2009, Gouache on Paper, 27" x 24"

Michelle Muldrow, Delirium (Cathedrals of Desire Series), 2011, Casein Paint on Kaolin Clay Panel, 20" x 10"

Michelle Muldrow, Altar in Orange (Cathedrals of Desire Series), 2011, Acrylic On Canvas, 48" x 48"

Michelle Muldrow, In Search of Bierstadt (Cathedrals of Desire Series), 2012, Casein Paint on Kaolin Clay Panel, 40" x 60"

Michelle Muldrow, Stillness and Repose (Cathedrals of Desire Series), 2011, Casein Paint on Kaolin Clay Panel, 36" x 36"

Michelle Muldrow, The Experience of Landscape (Cathedrals of Desire Series), 2012, Casein Paint on Kaolin Clay Panel, 48" x 48"

Michelle Muldrow, White, 2015, Golf bag parts on wood, 4’ x 4’, Photo credit: Pete Mauney

Michelle Muldrow, The Temporal (Cathedrals of Desire Series), 2012, Casein Paint on Kaolin Clay Panel, 36" x 36"

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