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Originally published Friday, July 11, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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Hot stuff: Volcanoes populate Ryan Molenkamp exhibition

A review of geology-major-turned-artist Ryan Molenkamp’s exhibition at Linda Hodges Gallery, “Fear of Volcanoes,” composed of 13 majestic pieces.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Fear of Volcanoes’

10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Aug. 2, Linda Hodges Gallery, 316 First Ave. S., Seattle (206-624-3034 or


Volcanoes have fascinated Northwest Coast artist Ryan Molenkamp since Mount St. Helens erupted when he was a small boy in 1980, frightening and amazing him. He read about them, visited natural-history museums and hiked their peaks as he got older. So it’s not surprising that when he went off to college, it was to study geology.

No art classes had been offered at his high school, and he had no idea when he entered Western Washington University that anyone could major in art or make it a career. His first painting class changed his academic history: He began college to find out what was going on in the planet and he ended college learning how to portray it.

“Fear of Volcanoes,” now at Linda Hodges Gallery, offers 13 acrylic and gouache depictions of volcanoes. All are done from an aerial perspective, and all are abstractions.

Molenkamp’s innovative approach to landscape painting seems to be influenced by modern digital technology. Hard edges, sharp lines, blocks of color and striations create abstractions whose elements remind one of computer-generated topographic data.

Yet these modern techniques create majestic volcanoes. Some appear to be quiescent, others in massive eruption. You see the cones; you see the plumes of smoke; you see debris flying off in all directions. Some represent just the cones behind fields of lava. Some are distant and Olympian with extensive landscapes in the foreground.

The panoramas are presented as abstract color forms and lines. Molenkamp has provided just enough intricacy within his abstractions to encourage the viewer to sense human habitation, to imagine roads, farm fields, woods.

This is especially true in “Fear of Fuji (Fear of Volcanoes 9),” where a vast abstract landscape lies below the symmetrical Mount Fuji that spews ash and volcanic debris into a dark sky. It’s impossible to look at the nonfigurative splotches of color and the lines that make up the foreground without imagining them as villages with telephone poles, roadways and buildings of various sizes.

In “Super Yellow Fear of Volcanoes,” the viewer might wonder what kind of volcano Molenkamp has depicted. Here, his knowledge of geology plays a critical role. Yellowstone National Park and its surroundings sit on an enormous caldera. The hot springs, geysers, and other natural forms are the result of the subsurface instability. The surface acts like the lid of a pot holding down the energy below it.

It’s a super volcano that releases its pressure about every 600,000 years with a massive eruption whose impact we can’t even imagine. It’s this drama and danger of the Northwest landscape Molenkamp presents in his paintings.

The Piper Snow ceramics exhibition accompanying Molenkamp’s work offers a colorful and playful contrast. Snow creates people, mostly couples, some up to 3 feet tall. Although Sumerian votive figures have influenced Snow, her people are all-American with wildly colorful and textured clothing. Their stylized hands and faces have a wry comic quality.

Snow, a young Bay area ceramist, trained at the California Academy of Arts.

Heat of the earth and heat of the kiln work in this exhibition to great effectiveness.

Nancy Worssam:

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