Cynthia is an ungainly sight. She wears hemorrhoid pillow dresses. There’s a constant look of displeasure on her face. Her voice is pained and slightly monotonous. To numb her boredom, she surrounds herself with the stuff of infomercials – new age kitsch and painted sand. She is the alter ego of video and performance artist Shana Moulton, one of ten New York-based artists Art21 is profiling in its ongoing series “New York Close Up.” The protagonist of Moulton’s Whispering Pines (2002 – ) videos, Cynthia is the digital age’s American dreamer.
Traversing her mundane surroundings with a mix of apathy and exhilaration, Cynthia longs for excitement. She seeks solace in the banality of consumer goods. The found object thrills her. Conceived in 2002, Whispering Pines is Moulton’s look at our reliance on these commodities – and, in particular, the solitude that numbs us into this reliance. Episodes of Whispering Pines, which recently completed its tenth installment, often end with Cynthia breaking free of her prim, spinsterish confines through the glitter of these objects. The things she’s bought off of television and in thrift stores change her life, transporting her from her living room to sporadic dance parties and surrealist grottos. She is enveloped in the euphoria of chaos.
The mix of absurdism and transcendentalism Moulton’s work can be traced back to her infatuation with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which she’s fostered since childhood. “I think it’s something David Foster Wallace said about David Lynch – that he rang his psychic cherries or something,” she laughs. Moulton is self-effacing and bubbly in person, a far cry from the character’s general disposition. “That’s what Twin Peaks did for me. I was obsessed.” Moulton is an artist defined by quirks like these. Whispering Pines was the name of the mobile home park for senior citizens she grew up in, located in Oakhurst, California; she’s named her video series after the park as an homage to both her upbringing and to Twin Peaks. She recalls her childhood as a time of garage sales, dreamcatchers, and jelly bracelets. She was rabidly obsessed with Spuds MacKenzie, the Bud Light poster dog. Recreational shopping was a family pastime.
Taste, and what constitutes good taste, is a concept Moulton could never really grasp, and Cynthia is surrounded by bad taste. It infiltrates her world, acting as her stimulation. Her days are filled with leafing through self-help manuals and and mixing Crystal Light drinks; low-quality MIDI versions of “Orinoco Flow” play as episodes move forward. As a performer, Moulton acclimates herself accordingly to her surroundings. She is transformative – her back caves in ever so slightly, and subtle changes in expression convey the complexity a woman who’s plagued by suburban malaise. In keeping with her trippy setting, she constantly shapes and reshapes her body with rigor and abandon.
Born of Moulton’s repressed pains, aggressions, and anxieties, Cynthia is an intriguing subject of study, for she is at once both personal and universal. The character was conceptualized in 2002 while Moulton, a graduate of UC Berkeley, was working toward her MFA at Carnegie Mellon. Introduced to performance and video art in her undergraduate years, she was, at first, a bit apprehensive of assuming this identity as Cynthia, a character who dwells in the realm of trash. Though Moulton insists that she is not an artist interested in surveying social issues – she claims, rather jokingly, she knows nothing about human relationships – Cynthia is something of a feminist figure. The struggles Cynthia undergoes are stylized distillations of what Moulton herself has experienced and observed as a woman coming of age in this country.
Though her work is, of course, inherently Lynchian, Moulton’s aesthetic may be more aptly described as a cross between Douglas Sirk and Nintendo. Her worlds are colorful, intentionally indulgent, almost lurid. They’re clearly the work of someone who grew up in the age of arcade games and Jem and the Holograms. She interprets suburbia as a hyperbole, full of pixelated forms and neon rainbows. At the center of all of this, though, is Cynthia, a spoof of the dreary, repressed suburban housewife persona that’s infiltrated pop culture. She is a singular character, like every Lana Turner and Jane Wyman of Sirk’s films but stripped of their glamorous flamboyance, interested only in surfaces and the sensations they bring upon her.