Catherine Armbrust is an MFA fiber and mixed media artist in Columbia, Missouri, and her series, Touched Icons, is featured as part of the 2019 February Exhibit. While Armbrust’s current work gives an immediate sense of depth and value, viewers will find that insight into its origins enhances experience of the work. Gallery Director Hannah Reeves asks the artist about the ideas and processes behind this series in this month’s blog feature.
HANNAH REEVES: Can you explain your process a little, especially for those not familiar with cyanotype?
CATHERINE ARMBRUST: Much, but not all, of the work in this series incorporates the cyanotype technique—a very early photographic process that I’m using to capture light and pattern. A two part chemical mixture is brushed on paper in a very dim room. After the mixture has dried, the surface can be layered with varying degrees of translucent materials & exposed to light to register the patterns and shapes. When the timed exposure is complete, the paper must be soaked and rinsed in a water bath in order to stop the exposure. What’s left is a gorgeous cyan blue and white composition. I then layer the compositions with watercolor, ink, and acrylic paint. The presence of “light” is significant in this work, especially when connected to a history of grief and movement towards healing.
REEVES: What is the significance of the heavy layering in this work? It seems like there is a "covering/burying" aspect, and maybe a "building forward" aspect as well?
ARMBRUST: This series feels like a new way for me to create. In the past, I’ve most often work with collaged planes or assemblage forms, creating more dimensional surfaces. These flat, yet visually heavy layers are a way to metaphorically mask the past (through masking the layers below). But as I continue to build out, (especially with the smaller framed works), using metallic papers that draw in and then reflect out the light, it feels more and more like renewal.
REEVES: Can you talk about vulnerability in your work, and how that connects to the use/exposure of your own body?
ARMBRUST: I have a larger umbrella project called “Visible Mending” that speaks directly to grief and healing (from the sudden loss of my husband in 2015) using a variety of mediums and platforms. “Touched Icons” is directly tied to “life after death”. While I produced a large body of work about my husband a few years ago, this series is more about me, about where I am currently. For me, that place is loved and supported, but not always emotionally pretty. Light and darkness are constantly shifting for me. Some days the loss feels as fresh as it did 3 years ago. That grief is often specifically felt in regards to the loss of physical touch and affection in my life. My body has also physically changed since his death, leading me to sometimes consider myself in relation to desirability and attraction. In a personal way, using my own body as a printing plate is a kind of way to prove my existence to myself. In the grander scheme of things, these types of exposures and compositional arrangements become both generally iconographic and deeply intimate.
REEVES: Who/what are some of your most important artistic influences?
ARMBRUST: I’ve looked to religious icons and cultural artifacts to inform my work for a very long time. The love of those texture-rich & often gleaming objects come from my background in Cultural Anthropology. My research also includes an obsession with 18th century French Rococo decorative arts. Though I often look to Nick Cave, Jeff Koons, and Kiki Smith as inspirations, this body of work was directly affected by the Belkis Ayon exhibition hosted at the Kemper Museum in Spring 2018. Her large-scale collagraphs and monochromatic grey-scale color palette, caused me to race home and shift my work dramatically.
REEVES: What is your "studio quirk"?
ARMBRUST: I’m a very undisciplined artist…and after losing my husband, I didn’t physically make anything for over a year. Whenever I tried to go back into the studio I just didn’t care, it was too hard. But I moved through that moment in time. Now I go through large stretches of being away from the studio, focusing instead on teaching, research, fundraising for the Eric Sweet Memorial Fund, or tackling other “Visible Mending” projects. Then when I’m ready again, I clear off a space on the table and make another huge mess. And I am a mess in the studio. I want to be tidy, but there’s always glitter or paper scraps or fake hair or bits of hot glue floating around. The sink is covered in paint