Artist presents kitschy work

Artist Shana Moulton’s video installation piece “Whispering Pines 3” portrays fictional persona Cynthia in her technicolor environment. (credit: Screenshot courtesy of youtube.com) Artist Shana Moulton’s video installation piece “Whispering Pines 3” portrays fictional persona Cynthia in her technicolor environment. (credit: Screenshot courtesy of youtube.com)

Video performance artist and Carnegie Mellon alumna Shana Moulton (CFA ’04) creates kitschy and endearing work with a poppy aesthetic that contradicts its exploration of the hopelessness of the individual. As the first speaker of the 2013 School of Art Spring Lecture Series, Moulton spoke of her experiences both at Carnegie Mellon and after graduation, as well as her current work at the Andy Warhol Museum.

Moulton’s work is largely based on a fictional character formulated in her graduate years spent at Carnegie Mellon, named Cynthia. Cynthia is a hypochondriac and an agoraphobiac, stuck in endless delusional attempts to find comfort while being plagued by technicolor hallucinations. Cynthia’s environment is clean, loaded with pastel-colored products, and coated in false hope. Her series of videos — entitled “Whispering Pines” after the mobile home she grew up in — follow Cynthia in her quest to find fulfillment in all the wrong places: cheap “as-seen-on-TV” beauty products, fad diets, and televised wonders like The Antiques Roadshow.

Moulton began the talk with “a walk down memory lane”; she explained how the medical-inspired garments she made as a master’s student at Carnegie Mellon influenced the creation of Cynthia. She explained that, after creating a dress with a hemorrhoid pillow built in, she wondered what sort of character would wear this dress, and, subsequently, concocted Cynthia. After graduation, she spent two years abroad in an artist residency in Amsterdam, where Cynthia’s videos began to take shape, mirroring Moulton’s family’s experiences, such as her mother’s sleep terrors, a result of chemicals in artificial sweeteners.

Moulton showed two full seven-and-a-half-minute videos in her talk, as well as clips from several others, allowing the work to speak for itself. The presentation concluded in her reading an excerpt from an author who had reviewed her work, because, as she claimed, “I’m terrible at summing it up myself.”

The videos rely largely on strange after-effect elements, creating a trippy, kitschy aesthetic. Many ended with Cynthia doing a strange, rave-type dance, often with body parts superimposed with
tye-die and spiral designs. “I use dance a lot as a kind of ultimate experience,” Moulton explained, laughing at how two of the clips she showed ended this way. “I don’t always dance at the end of my videos.”

Moulton was not a dynamic speaker, but her use of video and documentation made for a dynamic presentation. The “Whispering Pines” saga played on familiar tasteless products, like medication for Restless Leg Syndrome, Crystal Light, and other televised promises of comfort for the American home. The videos have a sad, ironic humor, ending in the realization that Cynthia’s wants, health, and spiritual desires are relatively obsolete; these are mirrored in the videos’ endings, with Cynthia feeling relatively unfulfilled or lacking the results that these products promised.

Recently, Moulton has begun using her body with several projections of the “Whispering Pines” world to create an interactive performance as Cynthia. On Friday she made an appearance at the Andy Warhol Museum for “Whispering Pines 10,” a one-act opera created by Moulton in collaboration with composer Nick Hallett and featuring vocalist Daisy Press.