Soil As Witness

After five years of intense engagement with water-based media, painter Maja Ruznic turns again to oil painting in an ongoing exploration of trauma and its untold traces in the series Soil as Witness.

Examining trauma’s traces through the photographic medium in “Spectral Evidence”, author Ulrich Baer argues that traumatic events and the memories they produce cannot, by the extreme upheaval they cause, be absorbed or narrativized as other events in our lives are. We are forced to wrestle, physically and psychologically, with these unwelcome spirits as best we know how. Ruznic – who as a child fled war in Bosnia and knows first-hand the precarity of refugee life – offers a robust visual proposal through which viewers may reckon with disturbance, and take comfort.

Ruznic works in a manner not unlike AbEx artist Helen Frankenthaler, both in emphasizing painterly gesture and defying the separation of surface and ground. Pigments are rubbed into each canvas, rather than resting on the surface, resulting in complete saturation. Though much more manageable than the water-based media Ruznic has also worked with, these
oil compositions demonstrate how the artist accounts for and even welcomes material unpredictability. Offering deeper meaning, Ruznic’s canvases may also be understood as metaphorical substitutes for the ground that witnesses and absorbs the collective traumas unleashed by war. ​

Hung with ample space between each of the eleven pieces, Soil as Witness introduces audiences to Ruznic’s “psychopomps” – amorphous intermediary figures who usher dying souls from one existential plane to the next. The forms emerge and recede from the technicolor surface, soundly defying the line between figure and ground.

“The Forgiver Has Forgiven But Emotional Memory Lingers” portrays one of the few solitary figures, seated and shoulders sloped. While the pose suggests at least potential repose, the figure’s wide eyes suggest shock, disbelief, or horror that cannot be unseen.

“Ancestral Nibbles”, the large composition that anchors the installation, wholly incorporates the aesthetic and philosophical questions Ruznic tackles in her work. Eight figures uncomfortably occupy every inch of the canvas, leaning into or slumping toward one another, their limbs unrestrained by bones or joints. There are no corporeal boundaries between these figures as they coil around each other, but the embrace is cold. Their bonds may not be those of love, but of being bound to one another while weathering joyless coexistence. Out of this miasma emerges a singular, smiling visage. That arresting feature suggests that life after limbo may yet offer respite, an affecting metaphor for those who in real time flee entrenched conflicts by the thousands.

Viewed only days after the shocking results of the American presidential election, Soil as Witness may be read as a visualization of what many are experiencing; fear for ourselves and friends, instability, or a rejection of all that is humane. The shell-shocked figures who emerge and dissolve into Ruznic’s canvases give form and feeling to what has so far eluded spoken and written language. But, there may be hope. If, like Ruznic’s psychopomps, we draw close to one another, we may survive the precarious passage that awaits us all.