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 a 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.
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. 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. Pictures in the “Color Coded Emotions” series (2017)—showing realistic human facial features, usually eyes, glimpsed though daubs and streaks of overlying pigment—are rendered in oil on wood panels measuring 6 by 6 inches or 4 by 4 feet. The “As Above, So Below” series (2010-ongoing) features pictures done on wood or paper in various combinations of graphite, oil, acrylic, and gesso, the largest reaching 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.
Experiencing the Work
Some of Moline-Kramer’s earliest works were woven sculptures notable for their intricate textures and ambiguous, vaguely biomorphic forms. The artist never abandoned that impulse toward structural mystery and subtle textural challenges to visual perception. It reemerged decades later in the painting series “All That Remains,” “As Above, So Below,” and “Color Coded Emotions.” All these works offer visual correlatives for the complications and ambiguities of identity—human and animal, individual and collective.
To a large degree, identity is determined 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, which was prompted by her mother’s mental decline and death, birds perched on thin boughs represent members of an extended “family tree,” whose constituents are now dispersed and growing progressively less communicative.
Image substitution of this kind has a 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. In “All That Remains,” for example, the branches are frequently barren and the birds more haggard than resplendent, suggesting grief not just for the deceased matriarch but the remaining time-ravaged “flock” as well. The artist’s complex psychological strategy is echoed materially by a mix of pigments and wood-burning, together 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 many other earthly creatures a fundamental quality of sentience, despite our superficial differences in physiognomy, mental capacity, and size. Moline-Kramer’s “As Above, So Below” paintings bespeak the need to recognize that similarity, despite a myopic haze of preconceptions.
Thus the artist creates what appear at first glance to be lovely quasi-monochromatic abstractions with worked surfaces. 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.
The “Color Coded Emotions” series addresses human feelings directly. Here the social impulse to hide or subdue everyday feelings—fearfulness or pleasure, anxiety or relief—is translated into multi-hued screens of expressive gestural marks. The paintings’ surface activity and brightness subvert all emotional disguise, all tendencies to veil the true self. Thus naturalistic eyes and smiles break through here and there, alerting viewers to a genuine identity behind each socially constructed defense.
The process of producing “Color Coded Emotions,” boldly slathering paint onto an earlier series of realistic portraits, is exactly the contrary of that in “As Above, So Below,” where the bodies and visages of animals are fastidiously developed out of initially abstract configurations. In Moline-Kramer’s world, animals define themselves through concentrated naturalness, humans through brazen artifice—and the two modes of conscious being meet in a reciprocal gaze.