From Overlooked American Infrastructure to Parisian Opulence, Three Artists Capture Their Surroundings

Among other qualities, artists are known for their unique ability to closely observe the world in which they live and to transform their reflections into works of art. While we may take our surroundings for granted, artists like Laura Hamje, Michelle Muldrow, and Elizabeth Ockwell view the places and spaces they encounter with a keen eye—and share their visions with viewers.

The environments surrounding us are shaped by more than their physical characteristics. Filtered through the minds of those inhabiting them or just passing through, they are seen through a scrim of memories, emotions, predilections, and experiences. Cities may seem like meccas of energy and ingenuity to some, while to others they may come across as overwhelming and overcrowded. A pristine natural setting far from human development may be considered a haven or a hell. The three artists whose works are currently on view at Koplin Del Rio are each uniquely attuned to their own surroundings. Their responses to the places they have lived or frequented are reflected in the paintings and drawings in “Milieu: Visions and Observations.”

For Laura Hamje, who calls Seattle home, the city’s architecture and infrastructure served as the inspiration for her new body of paintings featured in the exhibition. These atmospheric compositions are washed in the muted tones of gray and blue in which the city itself is steeped. Rather than offering iconic sights and views, they reflect the artist’s idiosyncratic focus on the bold forms of bridges, dockside areas, and other easy-to-overlook places and urban details. Likening her own art-making process to that of clearing the ground for and constructing the structures she paints, she has said: “I use my hands, knives, and brushes to build and destroy with paint.”

Michelle Muldrow’s milieu is manifest through her series “In Defense of Home,” intricate paintings made on clay panels depicting scenes inspired by the military bases that characterized her childhood. Her works are richly researched on the internet, mining maps and images of blocked street views and classified sites, in addition to found and personal photographs. Using casein and graphite she achieves fluid, expressive lines and forms that combine to form very literal depictions of the bases, as in Rec Center Pool (2014), that are inflected with a sense of nostalgia.

A very different sort of site—the Beaux-Arts marvel that is Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House—fills Elizabeth Ockwell’s intricate works. The artist has been traveling to Paris to paint and draw this building for more than 20 years and has become friendly with its staff and increasingly familiar with its seemingly endless architectural flourishes and details. “Artists who have found the right subject matter are extremely fortunate,” she has stated. “…[T]he old Paris Opera House…has fascinated me for nearly 30 years. It has provided me with emotionally resonant subject matter and with challenging and complex pictorial problems.” While she speaks for herself, the same could be said of Hamje and Muldrow, who have found similarly meaningful  subject matter in their own milieus.

Karen Kedmey

Milieu: Visions and Observations” is on view at Koplin Del Rio, Culver City, Jan. 10–Feb. 21, 2015.

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