When it comes to telling stories, a still image is not your best bet. But that hasn’t stopped Asheville resident Julie Armbruster from giving it a go. Armbruster’s paintings in the show Safety Goggles and Sharp Teeth!, on display for the month of September at Old City Java, are made up of two sets. The first contains paintings of strange creatures in bold colors surrounded by bright blue skies and green grass—what must be layers and layers of paint create vibrant finishes—while the second features small paintings of strange creatures in bold colors, but this time more simply, in pencil and watercolor with plenty of white background.
The latter, from the “Newsworthy Drawing Club Series,” don’t tell stories so much as illustrate them, as excerpts from newspaper articles accompanying each piece. From a fish that travels by bouncing on the ocean floor (“Psychedelic Fish Discovered”) to pigeons enlisted to sneak phones into prison (“Cell Phone Smuggler”) to yet another group of animals that found its way into drug crops (“Stoned Wallabees”), these are all from the Department of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.
Yet there’s plenty else Armbruster can make up. The rest of the wall space is dedicated to paintings of exactly that, where recognizable animals are given, among other things, human faces, and other figures that seem human are not quite. In this alternate world, body parts bloom on trees and bushes, and a unicorn is a large, horned rodent at sea in a small boat. The strangeness is not for its own sake. The absurdity is ordered, evocative, and repeated in such a way that it sometimes evokes the composition and symbolism of Golden Age Dutch genre painting. This is especially true of a few of the paintings that were shown at Tomato Head this spring, but you can see hints of it in the untitled black-and-white piece in the Java show. This world is both familiar and foreign, and full of all sorts of danger: actual, potential, and sometimes averted. And this is where the two sets of paintings begin to tell similar stories.
The violence of the world is confirmed as fuzzy whatsits with human faces romp with fresh wounds on their backs (the gashes are red, but not bleeding—they have survived, but with scars), a chicken sits with—what else?—its head cut off, while anthropomorphized threats are endowed with articulated motivation, or at least determination, which often involves deep mistrust and constant competition (persistent bees in “Feeling Indestructible,” and a seriously shifty-looking squirrel in “Patriotic Squirrel Thief”). There are occasional moments of defiant hope when one creature trumps another’s will to do harm, but you can’t win ’em all.
Frequently there’s a false sense of security, a mingling of protection and smothering. Human-faced babies appear limbless as they’re happily swaddled in what seems more a cocoon-like extension of the figures themselves than a blanket, but meanwhile they float ungrounded or are heaped upon one another, a mound of prepared food (“Potato Boy’s Tots”). Likewise, birds—being smuggled from Vietnam to Los Angeles—in “Bird Legs” sleep with peaceful half-moons for eyes, wrapped up tight around a man’s sock. These questionable comforts culminate in “Surprise Baby Panda” from the “Newsworthy” series, in which a panda bear’s unhinged jaw reveals another tiny bear on its outstretched tongue. The adult bear gazes upward with eyes both vacant and loopy. As the title of the show suggests, the protection provided isn’t always the protection needed.
Mingled with the dark and absurd is the dark and slightly goofy. The “Newsworthy” series isn’t shy about wordplay. In “Doomed Animals,” based on traces of mastodon dung indicating the cause of extinction of megafauna, the source of trouble is written in the brown coils in which the creatures stand—they are literally in deep shit. Nor does Armbruster let “Cell Phone Smuggler” go by without planting the words “jail bird.” Elsewhere, there’s humor in the struggle over a picnic basket that pits bunny vs. duck, the inevitability of conflict twisted with a light touch. These paintings may be especially resonant right now, with crises of every stripe on our hands (military, economic, environmental), when it’s so apparent that damage can’t be undone, and there’s little assurance that the proposed solutions are ones that work. This is tense, sort of mad painting for a tense, sort of mad time. The tension surrounding Armbruster’s creatures comes not from the fear that danger could be around the corner, but the realization that it’s always already here.