As someone who grew up in Cleveland and attended Carnegie Mellon University, Stephanie Armbruster has lived most of her life in post-industrial communities, where she's been able to watch the transformation from heavy industry to soft technology.
In her paintings for the exhibition In Search of Something More, at 709 Penn Gallery, Armbruster appropriates the imagery of such landscapes to depict urban renewal and visual tension amidst the cultural mosaic of Rust Belt America.
Armbruster employs a variety of symbolic images taken directly from urban culture, creating unlikely relationships and contradictions. The painting "A Fine Mess of Things" depicts the inevitable collapse of a bourgeois chandelier hanging precariously over a cacophony of jumbled text. Similar works in the exhibition use layers of atmospheric encaustic to obscure certain images, while others are left clearly on the surface.
These layers suggest various periods in history and ultimately chronicle the shifting identity of urban landscapes over time. Contemporary magazine cutouts, abstract oil paint and historical architecture interact simultaneously, resembling the city's complex socio-economical framework.
Armbruster's multi-layered paintings call to mind the symbolic meta-narratives of Julie Meretu, but rely more frequently on concrete symbols. Like Meretu, Armbruster adheres to a big bang theory of creation, wherein disparate elements swirl violently in the unpredictable atmosphere. But amid the turmoil, Armbruster often provides legible text like the play on words "Urban DK" -- from her painting "Moog Groove" -- that offer a moment of restful comprehension.
Visual tension is a constant in Armbruster's work, and responds to the ephemeral nature of urban landscapes. Her compositions enhance this tension by juxtaposing formal technique with casual execution. She exhibits a curious tendency to exaggerate depth, but rejects other landscape basics including a fixed horizon. Her brief indulgence in linear perspective panders to viewers' desire for spatial lucidity, but ultimately places them in a world whose basic elements are still under construction.
Finally, In Search of Something More leaves us with everything the title suggests. Armbruster offers a world in constant flux, always weighing the conflicting needs of renewal and conservation. Her work reflects how we define the world today -- and like it or not, uncertainty plays a large role in that definition.
IN SEARCH OF SOMETHING MORE continues through Sept. 11. 709 Penn Gallery, 709 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-471-6070