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Richard Vine: Bobbie Moline-Kramer

Life

Born in Iowa in 1946, Bobbie Moline-Kramer had an itinerant childhood in which her love of art was one of the few constants. She began to develop that interest professionally through a California community college course with Conceptual art pioneer John Baldessari and occasional assistance to Allan Kaprow, the originator of Happenings. From 1964 to ’74, Moline-Kramer lived in a San Diego art commune. A job as a flight attendant subsequently enabled her to travel overseas and broaden her exposure to artists such as France’s Claude Monet, Britain’s J.M.W. Turner, Germany’s Anselm Kiefer, and the U.S. and Italy’s Cy Twombly. In 1981 she received her BFA, with a double major in biology and illustration, from the California State University, Long Beach.

    For the next two decades, Moline-Kramer had a successful career as a commercial illustrator, primarily in the medical field, and even served as stint, beginning in 1984, as president of the West Coast chapter of the Society of Illustrators. At the same time, she continued to pursue her own bourgeoning fine art practice until, in 2006, she was able to devote herself full-time to painting.

    Since 1994, the artist has had solo exhibitions in numerous California galleries and has participated in group shows at nonprofit venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Santa Monica Museum of Art; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Oxnard; and the Long Beach Museum of Art.

Process

Moline-Kramer admires Japanese prints for “their use of flattened space combined with tightly rendered realism.” Her own work reflects those qualities, with the addition of painterly texture, modulated color, and—in some cases—a strong tendency toward gestural abstraction.

    Influenced early on by Maxfield Parrish and Andrew Wyeth, Moline-Kramer has retained a strong link with the natural world and the figure, both human and animal, even as she has adopted expressive formal devices that take her work beyond the strictures of pure representation.

    Eschewing the visual bombast of much large-scale contemporary painting, Moline-Kramer typically works at a moderate size that invites a close physical approach and sustained examination. The frame-filling visages of her series “Face to Face” (2004-06) are rendered in oil on wood panels measuring 6 by 6 inches or 4 by 4 feet. Her “All That Remains” (2009-10) images depict birds and branches on 10-by-10-inch boards that have been worked with a wood-burning tool and covered with graphite, gold leaf, oil, colored gesso, and modeling paste. Works in her series “As Above, So Below” (2010-ongoing), rendered on wood or paper in various combinations of graphite, oil, acrylic, and gesso, reach the still-modest dimensions of 36 by 27 inches. They feature landscapes, tree branches, and creatures—primarily monkeys and birds—emerging into perceptibility from a mottled limbo.

    Most recently, Moline-Kramer has undertaken a series of erotic drawings, while also experimenting iPad compositions of plants and flowers.

Experiencing the Work

Some of Moline Kramer’s earliest works were woven  macramé sculptures notable for their intricate textures and ambiguous, vaguely biomorphic forms. That impulse toward structural mystery and other subtle challenges to visual perception was has never left, reemerging decades later in the “All That Remains” and “As Above, So Below” paintings.  But a contrary—or perhaps complementary—approach characterizes her “Face to Face” pictures. These close-up portraits, cropped to the pure essentials of the human face, manifest the skills for close observation and precise rendering that the artists developed during her years as a medical illustrator. The thinly layered paint, betraying no obvious brush marks, yields an indexical, almost photographic image of each emotive face.

    The depiction of feelings and, supposedly, of character is virtually as old as the practice of portraiture itself. But the dual advent of photography and clinical psychology in the nineteenth century brought a new emphasis on the representation of emotions and states of being independent of the personal identity of the subject. Illustrated studies such as Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872) focused on pupil dilation,  muscle tension, circulatory changes and other physiological expressions of fear, joy, anger, etc.—not on the individual personalities experiencing these effects.

In “Face to Face,” Moline-Kramer seeks to reunite the individual and the collective or “typical.” (The quest for universal types—the mother, the criminal, the entrepreneur—was another nineteenth- and early twentieth-century preoccupation, evident in such projects as German photographer August Sander’s massive People of the Twentieth Century compilation.) The only ambiguity in Moline-Kramer’s “Face” series is whether the likeness is subsumed in the emotion or the emotion is subsumed in the likeness. Unable to definitively choose one view or the other, the viewer is prompted to contemplate a deeper question. Are we, each of us, the person we are because of what we think and feel, or do we think and feel certain things because of the person we already are? That is the conundrum of emotion and identity, perpetually unresolved.

Identity is also determined to a very large degree by participation in groups, from a small circle of acquaintances to a community to a nation to humanity as a whole. Of those social bonds none is more deeply felt than that of family, the subject of Moline-Kramer’s “All That Remains.” In this series, prompted by her mother’s mental decline and death, birds perched on thin boughs represent members of an extended “family tree,” now dispersed and becoming progressively less communicative.

This kind of image substitution, so different from the direct verisimilitude of “Face to Face,” has its own long cultural lineage—from tribal totem animals, to the moralistic menagerie of La Fontaine’s fables, to the poignantly human-like creatures of Disney’s Bambi. Using animals as surrogates can free an artist to explore human traits that are difficult, painful, or offensive to depict in a more straightforwardly naturalistic fashion.  This may well be the case with “All That Remains,” since the branches are so frequently barren and the birds themselves more often haggard than resplendent. This complex psychological strategy is echoed materially by a mix of pigments and wood-burning, yielding a relatively thick and rough paint surface.

One implication of such animal symbolism (birds are often associated with the soul) is that we humans share with other earthly creatures a fundamental quality of being, despite superficial differences in physiognomy and size. Moline-Kramer’s “As Above, So Below” paintings suggest the need to recognize that similarity, despite a myopic haze of preconceptions.

Thus the artist creates what appear at first glance to be lovely, worked-surface, quasi-monochromatic abstractions. Longer inspection, however, reveals the ever more definite presence of animal eyes, faces, and bodies. We find ourselves not threatened but reciprocally contemplated by an alien intelligence. We are not alone. That apprehension is the birth of true human selfhood.