Erupting Unknowns: Ryan Molenkamp’s Fear of Volcanoes

The first time I came to Seattle was to board a cruise ship, the same reason so many other Northwest outsiders first experience this city. Since I had been traveling with family (not to mention thousands of other cruisers), the only time I recall being alone on the trip was during the cab ride back to the airport, after we returned to port. Sitting in the backseat, moving alongside the lines of cars traveling southbound on I-5, the faint image of Mount Rainier floated among the license plates. It was among this swarm of rendered, friendlier mountains that I first saw the real Rainier, looming seventy miles away, above the mass of clouds that coated the passenger-side window.

Although I have lived here for nine years, and few things I saw during the cruise visit look the same to me now as they did fresh off the ship, Mount Rainier still radiates the same sense of severe immensity, even during its sunniest appearances. Walking into SAM Gallery’s Made in the Northwest show, I was met with a similar hum of severity—this time coming from Seattle artist Ryan Molenkamp’s (NAP #97) painted volcanoes. — Erin Langner, Seattle contributor

Ryan Molenkamp | View from Mt Erie, 
acrylic on panel, 30 x 40 in., 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ryan Molenkamp
 | Fear of Volcanoes 14, acrylic on panel, 20 x 24 in., 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Molenkamp’s volcanoes at first seem as friendly as the Rainier renderings that populate Washington’s license plates and the logos for the state’s cheap beer of choice. They are made of patchwork patterns that have the stitched-together unevenness of a well-loved security blanket. Their skies are filled with slabs of straightforward yellows and blues that run up against the undulating volcano masses and smoke pillows, together constructing fantastical, Dr. Seuss-like landscapes.  But, as the series title, Fear of Volcanoes, implies, these ruptures in the earth’s surface are not to be trusted; their dormancy is in no way secure.

Ryan Molenkamp | Untitled (Sound meets Cascades), a
crylic on panel, 42 x 54 in., 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ryan Molenkamp | Fear of Volcanoes 5
, 30 x 34 in., acrylic on panel, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mount Rainier is a stratovolcano, or one layered with lava, ash, and rock; this puts it in a category alongside the volcanoes most famous among humankind, including Mount Vesuvius, Mount Fuji and Mount Rainier’s neighbor, Mount Saint Helens.  Most of the stratovolcanoes became known by the destructive capabilities that fill their dark, craggy insides.  When you fly over the southwestern corner of Washington in which the two volcanoes reside, the massive puncture that stretches across the space once occupied by Mount Saint Helens’s peak offers an existential counterpoint to Mount Rainer’s rounded apex that routinely inspires the outdoor adventures—both imagined and real—of countless climbers, campers and hikers. Similar voids punctuate the Molenkamp’s volcanoes, at their tips and in their surrounding fields, momentarily stripping away the saccharine hues, while offering no conciliations in their places. These dark, jagged hearts and pools of emptiness, more than simply balancing the fantasy, insist on its falsehood while acknowledging its beauty. We are left in the same state of limbo as anyone else at the foot of a volcano: immersed in its immediate presence while completely unattuned to the powers of its future.

Ryan Molenkamp | Fear of Volcanoes 7
, 34”H x 30”W, acrylic on panel, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ryan Molenkamp
 | Fear of Volcanoes 15, acrylic on panel, 24 x 30 in., 2014​. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ryan Molenkamp | Fear of Fuji (Fear of Volcanoes 9)
, 48 x 60 in., acrylic on panel, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.


Made in the Northwest is on view at SAM Gallery in Seattle, WA through October 23. Ryan Molenkamp lives and works in Seattle. He received his BFA in painting from Western Washington University. His work has recently been shown at Linda Hodges Gallery (Seattle, WA), Cuchifritos Gallery (New York, NY) and Collar Works Gallery (Troy, NY). In 2012, Molenkamp was awarded a Jentel Artist Residency in Sheridan, WY.

Erin Langner is a freelance arts writer and Program Associate at Seattle Arts & Lectures.


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