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Installation view of Shana Moulton: Meta/Physical Therapy, on view at The Museum of Modern Art from February 17, 2024 – April 21, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado
Installation view of Shana Moulton: "Meta/Physical Therapy," on view at the Museum of Modern Art from Feb. 17 – April 21, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

MFA Alumna Shana Moulton's Alter Ego Cynthia Lands Center Stage at the Museum of Modern Art

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Peter Kerwin
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In Carnegie Mellon University alumna Shana Moulton’s site-specific installation at the Museum of Modern Art(opens in new window), visitors are invited to enter Cynthia’s world as she is transported from the mundane to the mystical in search of cures to her many ailments. The exhibition, titled “Meta/Physical Therapy” is the latest chapter in Moulton’s two-decade exploration of Cynthia, a semi-autobiographical alter ego that she first developed while pursuing a master of fine arts degree at CMU.

When Moulton first donned Cynthia’s signature wig and bright make-up, she didn’t realize that the character she created would still be the center of her artistic practice 22 years later. At the time, Moulton was creating clothing that incorporated medical equipment, when an adviser, former CMU visiting assistant professor Hilary Harp, challenged her to find a way to activate the pieces, moving them from sculpture to performance.

“I was imagining what kind of person would wear these dresses,” Moulton said, “And that’s where Cynthia initially comes from.”

In the beginning, Moulton conceived of Cynthia as a caricature of a hypochondriac, but she quickly started including more autobiographical stories and anecdotes in her narratives. The result is a character who retains her humor but is not simply the butt of a joke. Audiences relate to and root for Cynthia on her journey through consumerist kitsch, wellness fads and new age spirituality as she seeks healing and self-improvement.

Moulton’s MoMA exhibition, on view through April 21, consists of a central projection — the main narrative element of the installation — flanked by a staircase ending in a rainbow halo on one side and an oversized vase-like shape with a projection on the other. A digital river meanders through the space, connecting the elements. In the narrative video, Cynthia seeks cures through online shopping and is transported from her claustrophobic home to the outside world and back through various objects.

In addition to the installation, Moulton is also presenting a series of live performances as Cynthia within the space during April.

Cynthia’s love of shopping, and her never-ending quest for the one product that will live up to its transformative promises, is a characteristic Moulton said she sometimes shares with her alter ego.

“The work is a critique of consumer culture, but I also participate in it. I'll always have a desire and search for self-improvement that I deep down know I'm not going to get through shopping,” said Moulton. “In some ways, Cynthia is a more naïve version of me.”

Cynthia and her world are inspired by Moulton’s upbringing in a mobile home park for retirees that her parents owned near Yosemite National Park. Rather than spend time with other kids, she often entertained herself by doing puzzles with elderly residents or exploring the vast nature around her. Cynthia’s aesthetic is inspired both by the thrift store tchotchkes, which her mother used to decorate, and the highly stylized and surreal world of “Twin Peaks,” which premiered when she was 13.

Over the years as technology has changed, so has Cynthia’s world. Amazon boxes and digital portals, akin to the steady diet of advertising on social media networks, now play a central role in how she interacts with the monotony of the real world and with her more mystical adventures. Early exhibitions consisted of a single projection, but Cynthia’s sets have grown increasingly complex.

Although Moulton didn’t initially intend for Cynthia to continue indefinitely, she realized that the alter ego became a way for her to continue exploring new ideas. “She is my throughline through which I look at beauty products, spirituality, landscape and much more.”

Moulton described working with a singular character as simultaneously constraining and liberating. Having limitations in art making can be a way to create more freedom, she said. “I’m sort of stuck in this character, but I’m also totally free to go anywhere with her. Cynthia is an anchor for me.”

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