Stephanie Buer‘s work portrays the world that is. She paints the character endemic to the urban landscape, even after it’s been left to decay, showing that there’s as much, if not more to be seen after these places have been abandoned. She’ll be at Hellion Gallery all this month. Check out her interview to hear more:
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Stephanie Buer. I’m from Michigan but am currently living and working in Portland, Oregon.
In your About it says that you spent a decade in Detroit observing the urban landscapes, particularly their fall from prosperity. Where are you originally from? What about your experience in Detroit affected you so deeply? What do you think it says about a society that can invest so much into buildings and spaces, to really take so much from the earth in terms of raw materials, steel, concrete, wood, and build huge structures, then in almost the same breath, walk away from them?
I’m originally from Michigan but I grew up about two hours outside Detroit in a much more rural environment. Moving to Detroit was my first time living in a city and I used to get very homesick for the country. I started exploring abandoned buildings as a way to escape the city, these empty spaces felt so much like the woods and fields I explored where I grew up. From that moment on, I really fell in love with the city, especially the often overlooked portions of it.
I think that it says a great deal about our society. We’re a consumerism based society that has become dangerously and disproportionately separated from what we consume. Our economy is based on the idea that we will continue in an upward growth which is unhealthy and impossible for our natural resources to sustain. I really hope when people view my work that this very question you’ve asked will come up. I hope it creates a dialogue among people about how we live in this world, our responsibility to it, and how our lifestyle effects the health of the planet. These are all issues which I’m very passionate about.
Your work not only features Urban Decay, but is clearly from a point of view that is most often within the structure. How do you find the places to feature? Where do you go? Can you tell us about a particularly interesting adventure you went on to find a good place to paint/draw?
I spend a fair amount of time both driving and walking around scouting locations, and if something interests me I go check it out. In the Midwest it is fairly easy to find old industrial buildings, however the Pacific Northwest is a bit more difficult. The majority of my exploring is in Detroit and Portland at the moment but I hope to visit other cities in the future, traveling to other countries is also on my list.
One of my favorite trips was to the old Detroit Zoo. Its on Belle Isle, a huge city park right in the middle of the Detroit River and it was more difficult to get into then most buildings, I was pretty nervous. By making my way through the woods and squeezing through both rows of chain link fence you emerge into what feels like a wilderness; its like Jurassic Park years after everyone left. Everything was so wild and overgrown, the native animals and bugs had reclaimed it. After bushwhacking through the undergrowth and woods. You come upon the entrance to the zoo and its this crazy Tahitian looking architecture. Totally amazing and bizarre, one of the most exciting and unique urban exploring experiences I’ve ever had.
Do you feel different when using charcoal versus oil? Your work with oil is colorful and vibrant, while your with charcoal feels more lonely and dark. Do you feel that is the case because of your emotion while using each of those media or is it more of an affect of the media themselves? Are either of those media limiting to you? What do you think the different strengths are?
I feel a difference but not a tremendous emotional one. I think it may be the effect of the media itself although I do make compositional and subject matter choices based on the medium. One of my favorite things about charcoal is the deep blacks. It allows me to push the abstract quality of the composition and create more drama. I do feel that I’m able to capture detail more easily in charcoal than in painting but not having color, you lack the ability to show the wide variety of textures. If I’m struck by the color and textures of a place I tend to lean towards paint. I enjoy the long history of oil painting, taking a classical medium and style and using it to portray a modern subject matter. I also love exploring the medium of paint, my paintings are very textural and thick. I don’t feel limited by either of these mediums, in fact I feel that I have a lot of growing to do in both areas, and that potential to get stronger with practice is very exciting to me.
Throughout your art, the most lively facet seems to be the graffiti, in fact one might walk away with the distinct feeling that graffiti brings vitality to the decrepit places you portray, that is it the lifeblood of Urban Decay. How would you respond to that? What is your opinion of graffiti? And how do you perceive your own framing of it within your work?
I’m not too certain that I agree fully agree with that statement. Its true that it brings a more relatable element to the work, almost in the way a figure in a landscape makes it more relatable. I’m not sure its what gives these decrepit places vitality. Even though graffiti has been around for sometime now, its still very popular and also controversial. I find it’s the most debated aspect of my work, which I think is mildly disturbing. People rarely say; its a shame that these huge structures and all those natural resources are rotting away, or that its a shame this huge section of land has been so horribly mistreated. Instead they may be bothered by the fact that people paint on walls or that I paint their original work.
I do love graffiti though, and the reason it often shows up in my work is simply because its there. I like exploring the types of places where these artists work, but also were scrappers work, wild animals hide, and homeless people seek shelter. Its a unique, urban environment. I think the graffiti adds an extra human layer to the story, a bit of art history. I also love the colors and textures, especially when you come upon old weathered graffiti that has been around for years. Its so beautiful.
What do you hope to achieve by drawing your viewers in as witnesses? Instead of presenting work that allows them to simply observe? Do you have some hope for these spaces, do you wish them reclaimed?
I hope that perhaps people will question their place in the world and how they use the resources they’re given. I also hope that they might learn to question what beauty is. What we’re told is beautiful by media and what we’re presented with in our everyday lives don’t often match up. If you can help someone see the beauty in the everyday, in the disregarded, in the places and people that are overlooked by society I think you can help improve their quality of life. We can’t all open our doors everyday to a mountain landscape or a picture perfect neighborhood. But if people could learn to see beauty in the abandoned lot at the end of their block or the decrepit wall on the side of the convenient store up the street, it may help in a small way. I think that by leaving figures out of the image you arrange for a wider variety of stories for people to bring to the work. It becomes easier for them to enter it and make up their own vision, and I love hearing these too.
I personally enjoy an abandoned building or abandoned lot. So I’m not sure that I wish them all to be reclaimed, especially when they’re reclaimed with ugly, cheap apartment buildings. I think they’re often worse in some ways. Having a few old buildings hanging around is a nice reminder of places we’ve been and mistakes we’ve made, like people in Europe living among ancient ruins.
What are the pieces you’re showing at Hellion? What do you like about the work you’re featuring? What are your strong suits? Where do you need to develop?
I did 6 pieces for the show and I split it evenly between places in Detroit and Portland. It was fun to see people try to pick out which they thought was which, a lot of times they couldn’t tell. I tried to work with more abstract compositions in the new work, and there was very little graffiti. I really enjoy minimal compositions, it’s a bit more challenging to keep it interesting. Joe Shea and I also did a collaboration which was really fun and very well received. I can’t wait to try more collaborations in the future, its a really fun way to grow and connect with other artists. I think I could develop in lots of ways, working on my detail, compositions, painting technique . . . I’m really excited to get started on my next body of work, and start working on some of these things!