Not Just a Studio: Recapping the First Year of CES Residency

CES Gallery
May 27, 2017 12:49AM

An intimate conversation between the first CES Gallery Artist-In-Residence Maja Ruznic and Associate Director Meghan Gordon.

Meghan Gordon: It’s really nice to be in your studio. It’s my first time here.

Maja Ruznic: Yes! I can’t believe that, considering how many great conversations we have had about my work.

MG: I see you’ve got some new things happening. I also see some familiar faces. What’s going on?

MR: Some of these paintings were in my solo exhibition, The Wailing Sisters at CES Gallery, but a lot of them are new. Most are going to London. I’ll be in a three-person show at Beers London.

MG: That’s right, congratulations! Are the new works part of the Soil as Witness series?

Maja Ruznic
The Wailing Sisters, 2016
CES Gallery

MR: Yes, Soil as Witness was a body of work in progress during CES Residency. Carl [E. Smith, Owner/Director of CES Gallery] and I selected a subgroup, which became The Wailing Sisters. The series depicts figures performing ritualistic activities, but it’s not really clear what they’re doing. A friend of mine who is an art historian saw some preliminary images and said, “Oh, you’re painting augurs.”

MG: What is an augur?

MR: They were religious figures in ancient Rome who looked for omens, often flocks of birds, to foretell things that would happen. They were sort of future-tellers and prophets and I liked that. I started looking at my figures differently. I like to keep my work open ended so that people can insert themselves into it; in the end I decide whether or not to keep what they give me.

Recently with these unfinished ones I’ve been trying to let the figures unravel. In previous paintings like Getting All The Knots Out there’s still a sense of a hand, an arm…it’s attached to a shoulder, there is a neck. With this new work I’m getting rid of that order. It’s more formal. I would say there is a desire to dismantle the figure. I’ve been reading a lot. I just got this collection of chapbooks by Anne Carson called Float. There is a little story in there called “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent.”

MG: That sounds perfect for you.

MR: It’s so good. I read it and I thought, this is what I’m trying to do with my work. It’s about restraining from naming things. Carson writes about Joan of Arc; when Joan was called for questioning she was asked to name the voices she heard, but nothing seemed appropriate for the feeling. There are many examples in the search for the unnameable.

Maja Ruznic shares a sketch and some notes while discussing the "unnameable" with Meghan Gordon.

MG: In your work, it’s not only language—the unnameable you found in Carson’s work— but the way you paint figures. Perhaps beings are in the process of forming, of becoming themselves. They are, as you said, in parts. These figures in flux allow a viewer to project themselves into your work, like how faces in Medieval devotional paintings were rendered non-distinctly…

MR: …so that you could sort of insert…

MG: …your father’s, brother’s, or dead son’s face onto Jesus’s body, creating an emotional connection between you and this abstract mythical being.

MR: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I’m comforted when people share what they experience in my work. While I’m painting I’m searching for something that my hand and my eye and my brain recognize simultaneously. It feels like that unnameable thing that just… is the thing. Maybe my desire to dismantle the figure is like going into shaky waters. You know, this might have something to do with the political climate too.

MG: I’m sure it must.

MR: For me, it feels inauthentic to go to the studio and make paintings directly responding to what’s happening in the world. That’s just not how I work. But it comes out everywhere. There’s anxiety, all these bits and pieces scattered around, a hand in the corner. There is a fragmenting that I feel in myself and in my peers.

MG: That is not surprising to hear. I have been thinking about the political nature of daily action, including forming and maintaining friendships and relationships. Friendship is this political act, where you declare an allegiance with somebody. Supporting someone, whether it’s with money or with your labor, is a political statement and a definition of your identity through that declaration. I’ve been thinking about this as I have begun to plan for CES Residency II. Did you know that this is not the first residency I’ve instigated?

Maja Ruznic
Getting All The Nots Out, 2016
CES Gallery

MR: Oh really? Oh my gosh – you love residencies!

MG: Yes, I do. I’ve done a few as an artist. After I graduated from college I was nomadic, living at artist residencies for a few years. My experience with them is varied because residencies themselves are varied. I would always befriend the administrators and ask about how the programs were run and why. When I was in grad school I also created a residency, but it was an unofficial, perhaps illicit activity. I invited people to the school, let them stay on campus, arranged studio visits, artist talks, presented dinners for them – without the support of the school. I also co-created a digital residency with a collective I’m in.

When I started working at CES I thought, what kind of gallery do we want to be? What are our values? How can we be true to who we are and how can we present that publically? I pitched the idea for a residency to Carl and he loved it. He said, “Tell me what this means and how we can do it.” I realized that we could define how a residency would work in the context of our program while creating new ways to help artists.

MR: That’s beautiful. In a way, Carl gave you the freedom to see your idea come to life.

MG: Absolutely. But the residency also fits Carl’s track record of supporting artists. He’s been working with artists for 20 years in various capacities. I think one of Carl’s gifts is to see the talent and drive in young artists just as they start making interesting work. He meets with them, guides them to clarify their intentions in the studio, helps them grow to the next level. He wants to be involved. He’s thoughtful in the studio, asking questions about both conceptual and practical matters.

I’ve been meaning to ask you: is this the first residency you’ve done?

MR: I have technically done one before. A friend of mine’s father got a piece of land in Italy. It was in Tuscany and they wanted to share this luxurious experience with an artist who couldn’t afford to visit a place like that. They wanted to make sure they always had someone exciting to spend time with. I had a villa to myself…  

MG: Wow! It sounds like a dream.

MR: The thing is when I got there, there was no studio. It was this beautiful villa with a restaurant – I was a bit overwhelmed. They emphatically asked me to keep it clean, don’t get paint on the floor! I’m not that good at doing that. I covered everything with tarps. I ended up making these tiny little works that would fit on the table.

MG: Were they all water media since you could clean up spills easier?

Maja Ruznic, Child With One Eye, 2013, Ink on paper, 22 x 19 in

Maja Ruznic, Trying To Believe In The Stories That We Tell Each Other, 2013, Ink and gouache on paper, 12 x 12 in

MR: Yeah, but I didn’t even use gouache, just watercolor. The residency was super generous. They funded my travel, housing, they fed me, and all I had to do was gift them some paintings for their restaurant.

MG: How did this experience affect you as an artist?

MR: To be totally honest, the work itself didn’t really change there, but I met an amazing artist living in the town. We spent time together, cooking and talking, and became great friends. I felt isolated and this social time was my favorite part of the whole experience. If anything, I learned that I really like to be around human beings.

MG: That makes sense considering the content of your paintings – all these figures, some in social situations. Well how would you compare that experience with CES Residency?

MR: I remember when I got your email – I went to the store and bought stretchers and paint that same day. I went into hyper production mode. It was an intoxicating time. It invigorated my own connection to the work I was making. I had been in a studio lull, but the residency made things feel fresh again.

MG: You had a lot of energy! It’s hard to imagine you in a lull, actually. Can we recap? What happened when you found out that you got the residency?

MR: First, Carl and I agreed, since my studio is so close to the gallery – it’s like three blocks – that I should keep working in my own space and save a day of moving. I had a few paintings in progress: this one behind us, Tickle Torture, and a couple of the smaller ones. Then I had this conundrum – four paintings would not be enough for a solo show so I had to coordinate with Jack Fischer, my dealer in San Francisco, to select some others. I moved to LA three years ago and this was my first solo here. I really wanted it to be my best work. Carl came here for a second studio visit and we sorted it all out. I love talking to Carl about my work – you are so right about his studio visits. I felt reassured to work with you guys, that the work was being looked at the way I look at work.

MG: So then you installed the show.

MR: It was really funny – we carried the paintings down the street. Carl helped! There was a lot of planning, even though it went fast. And right before the opening there was the happy hour for the nominated artists – I got to meet everyone.

MG: And then the opening!

MR: It was a big night, there were lots of openings. A lot of people showed up.

MG: Then when I got back to town, we met in person to discuss the exhibition, and we started meeting with people together in the gallery.

MR: Yes, which was really incredible and new for me. You were working hard to get interesting people to come and see the work. I’ve never had someone do that for me before. I felt nurtured.

MG: I’m so glad. Those discussions, fostering new relationships, and professional nurturing is part of what I envisioned for the residency. There can be a lot more to a residency than just a free studio. Carl and I are both really excited about guiding artists through their first solo exhibitions. We wanted to work with artists who haven’t had this opportunity yet.

MR: It was a big deal. I had been making works on paper for six years and then I had this transitional year, right before the residency, where I was figuring things out again. This opportunity acknowledged a breakthrough for me. I was searching and going through the forest and then I came to something and I felt that the residency was proof: “Oh you found something! Let’s show it to everyone!”

Meghan Gordon gets a closer look at an older painting in Maja Ruznic's studio.

MG: We could sense that in your work. It’s an exciting place to be for an artist. There are a few people we are working with right now that are in a similar stage. All the things are coming together, congealing. You’ve been in the incubator and you’ve emerged. That’s the best time to have conversations about artwork. It’s fresh, as you said before, and you want feedback, to engage in dialogue.

MR: Before Soil as Witness, I didn’t like what I was doing. Things didn’t look the way I wanted them to look. When I found it, I felt so lucky that I had a witness – you guys. Sometimes you finish something and wave your arms and say, “Hey, look!” – and there’s no one around. You know?

MG: Aww. I’m glad we were pointed to look in your direction.

MR: It was perfect. I did all this work and then I had all these amazing studio visits.

MG: Right, the residency helped you expand your community in Los Angeles.

MR: Yes, the seeds that we planted around that time are still blooming. Luis de Jesus was here recently for a studio visit. He didn’t make it to The Wailing Sisters, but saw the work posted on CES’s Instagram.

MG: That’s awesome! Your show at Beers London also came from their gallery following CES on social media. There were so many reverberations. Now you have four or five dealers who are on your team. They’re gonna help you, even if they don’t sign you. They have proclaimed interest in you. They have visited your studio and they will help you get stuff. And the reputation you have developed as an artist professionally with all these people…

MR: …it’s priceless. As you said, there are different ways you can benefit from a residency. For me, CES has been about relationships. I couldn’t believe it when Tomory Dodge visited the show and then sent his gallery over to see it too. When ACME moved at the end of last year, they invited me to be in the inaugural exhibition in their new location. It’s been non-stop.

MG: That’s great to hear. I also loved the story you told me about a friend of yours who suggested to Deb Klowden-Mann that she check out your work. A couple of weeks after she did a studio visit with you, we asked her to nominate a promising young artist…

MR: During the residency, I remember telling my studio mates, this is the first time that I feel really proud. Maybe that sounds weird, but I’ve always been very self-critical. This time, though, I was pleased. I knew I did a good job.

MG: You definitely did. You were particularly articulate during the final event for your residency, during the discussion between you and artist and writer Rebecca Ora. What was it like for you to end the residency that way? You and Carl and I are still in conversation regularly, but that event was a really beautiful presentation of some of the discussions that happened privately throughout the residency process.

Rebecca Ora and Maja Ruznic speaking at the closing reception for The Wailing Sisters and CES Residency I at CES Gallery.

MR: It was really great. You suggested that the final event could be anything – you encouraged me to think outside the box. Rebecca is a friend and I respect her work a lot. Her mind is incredible. I knew I wanted to involve her, to introduce her to a new audience…

MG: …very much in the spirit of the residency I think.

MR: Rebecca actually moved to LA since that talk.

MG: Oh wow, cool!

MR: I’m lucky to have Rebecca as a friend because we have these intense conversations about our work all the time. Sharing that with an audience was really nice. The whole experience had a richness to it and I was happy to see that in a commercial gallery setting. Often my experience has been to drop the paintings off, and they just have their own life after that. My time at the residency, the conversations, our continued relationship – they opened up the experience in a new way. I’ve changed the way I think about professional relationships.

MG: You deserve the attention and it is a pleasure working with you. My final question for you is: what advice would you give to the next CES Gallery Artist-In-Residence?

MR: Hmm… well, I would recommend that an artist should always be making work as if there is an upcoming show. So when you arrive at the residency, you are already well on your way. I guess that’s not really specific to the residency experience… Don’t worry about having a place to show the work. It shouldn’t be about that. You need to be kind of possessed. I think that sense of being possessed is exciting to other people and then you’ll get shows.

MG: Definitely! We saw that in you immediately. I’m glad to hear you give that advice to other artists.

MR: Oh thanks! I think I just hear people say, well I don’t have anything lined up and my response is, “Who cares?” That means you can make a lot of bad work and experiment. I think that’s when the greatest work comes out.

Maja Ruznic was born in Bosnia & Hercegovina in 1983 and came to the United States as a refugee in 1992. Ruznic studied Psychology and Art at UC Berkeley and received an MFA from the California College of the Arts in 2009. Ruznic has exhibited internationally Japan, Turkey, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Austria, France, Puerto Rico, Texas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco Ruznic’s work has been featured in Juxtapoz, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Studio Visit Magazine, and twice in New American Paintings, including the cover as selected by curator Anne Ellegood. Ruznic's work is included in the Jiminez-Colon Collection (Puerto Rico) and was selected by Maria Elena Ortiz as the Perez Art Museum Miami award at the Pulse Art Fair. She was the inaugural CES Artist-In-Residence (Los Angeles) and has also participated in the Alfred Trafford Klots International Residency (Lehon, France). Ruznic currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

Meghan Gordon (b. 1985, New York) is a Los Angeles-based artist, writer, and facilitator who creates unusual exhibition contexts in order to foster short, but intensive working relationships with other artists, resulting in hybrid projects with complicated authorship. Gordon's primary platform for this work is her project some times, an itinerant, performative project space that takes the form of a bar. Gordon is the former Associate Director of CES Gallery and is currently the Associate Director of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

CES Gallery