Stephanie Buer Gives Fine Art Reverie to Urban Decay
Finding the beauty in blight.
Images: Stephanie Buer
Stephanie Buer untethers landscape portraiture from the expected safety of mountain vistas and pastoral settings. The Portland-based artist shifts that same fine art reverie instead to abandoned urban settings, to buildings left to atrophy, graffiti-covered overpasses and vacant lots. Where one might see only deterioration and collapse, Buer sees a quietude worthy of exploring. And preserving. Her work bears witness – in paint and charcoal – to the ways nature, vandalism and the hands of time shape, reshape and disappear the urban landscape.
A new series of Buer’s photorealistic paintings and charcoal drawings are now on view at Thinkspace Gallery in Los Angeles. In Uncommon Silence, the artist, long known for depictions of Detroit, takes LA as muse. She explores the city’s architectural ruins as the exposed ribs of a society obsessed with what’s newer and next. The result is a meditation on specificity, light and – surprisingly – calm.
It never feels like you are speaking for the spaces and places you explore, but rather that they are speaking to you. The paintings and drawings seem to capture a sense of listening. Can you talk about vantage point in relation to your work? Why place the viewer where you do?
Stephanie Buer: I like the way that you described that. I haven’t really thought of it much but Its totally true, I don’t speak for the spaces, they are speaking to me. I’ve always wanted my works to have a sense of peace and calm, like these landscapes are speaking for themselves in their quietude.
I place the viewer where I do because I find it to be an interesting vantage point. Simple as that I guess. It could either be a beautiful view, a unique building, or an intriguing, abstract composition. These are things that I usually build a composition around. Within that view, I enjoy focusing on old, decrepit materials, beautiful tags, interesting shadows, and the ways that plants, snow, and water reclaim the things we build, just to name a few. There is so much going on in these places and so many layers. I love that about these urban environments.
Can you walk us through your process? What’s your typical entry point?
The process for me, begins in exploring and taking photos. Sometimes it’s just something I find out on a walk or with this latest show, I set out on a trip with the sole intention of documenting and gathering images to work with. I often gather hundreds of images, and then I’ll go through them all and find the ones that I really like and make works, either charcoal drawings or oil paintings, based on those images. Gathering images and building compositions is where the creative part comes in, after that its just good old-fashioned work. Putting in the hours to get the work done.
Do you consider yourself a documentarian? A storyteller?
I would say a documentarian more then a storyteller. When I started painting these landscapes, I realized that these abandoned and urban spaces change rapidly, either the buildings are torn down, remodeled or continuously repainted. The works capture them in a single moment in time, which will never exist again. I feel like a documentarian when that happens, especially when the buildings are torn down. I think all of the work, in its entirety is telling a story about these spaces in our cities but, each individual piece is documenting a particular spot and a particular moment in that place’s existence.
Why Los Angeles for this latest series? What are some of the city’s narratives that emerged?
I am originally from Michigan and lived in Detroit for 10 years. That’s where my obsession with abandoned, urban places started. I’ve been painting Detroit scenes for years and for awhile its been a goal of mine to become more intimate with other cities in the way that I fell in love with Detroit. This latest show with Thinkspace Gallery, will be my fifth one with them. It seemed a fitting place to start, and to pay homage to a city that has had so much influence on my career as an artist.
LA was very different from Detroit. From the start, I noticed that there were not very many abandoned properties. It must be that real estate is so much more valuable and that so many people live there. Even abandoned properties are in use as movie sets, which I thought was pretty crazy. So, its less wild and free then I’m used to. It had a really great bright, liveness to it though. The sun was different, the plant life, the colors, the atmosphere, even the building materials. It was all so different from the midwest but pretty exciting to work with. It seems lame to get so excited about painting different building materials, which requires palettes I’m not used to or painting strange plant life and different types of lighting but, I geek out about that sort of stuff. Another thing I noticed, was that, the local graffiti artists were very friendly. The few that I’ve spoken with were totally fine with me including their tags in my work and seemed genuinely excited. That really meant a lot to me. It doesn’t always go that way.
As a benefit of your practice, have you also developed your own sick throw up? Do you ever have that writer’s itch to leave your mark on any of the places you’re exploring? Or is the painting created from it reclamation enough?
I have not. I’ve never really felt like I should either. I love meeting and getting to know the artists and enjoying their work but I’ve never had that desire. I think creating the paintings and drawings are reclamation enough for me.
In the work, there is a collision of a fine art practice with writing culture, but also the past and present in the buildings themselves. You wholeheartedly believe that the old and new can coexist?
I really do, and I think great things emerge when they do.
Uncommon Silence is on view now through January 28, 2017 at Thinkspace Gallery (