Maja Ruznic's Big Break: "Intimate Scale Belies Powerful Punch," says New American Paintings

Maja Ruznic made up for her performance in "The Cries of San Francisco," 2011 (photo by Aimee Friberg)

Maja Ruznic's painting Self Portrait as Mother of All Evil was recently featured on the cover of New American Paintings. That, plus the sudden flurry of activity that has followed (including a hefty feature on ABC news and commissions from around the world, have been extraordinary and gratifying, and the biggest break thus far since her graduation in 2009 from CCA's Graduate Program in Fine Arts.

The acclaim is certainly well-deserved for this busy and driven artist, athlete, activist, social worker, and dedicated family member, whose practice and personality reflect her unflagging optimism and perseverance -- and the conviction to keep making work that feels urgent, instinctual, and necessary.

"When I found out that I made the cover, I was ecstatic!" Ruznic exclaims. "When the edition came out and I saw it, I started crying. I could not believe it. And it has been completely transformative. People have contacted me from all over the world -- Puerto Rico, Japan, Croatia -- to buy my work. I definitely feel that the cover has somehow 'legitimized' me as an artist." She is particularly excited about a commission from the medical doctor, clown, performer, and social activist Patch Adams to create a painting for his hospital.

Intimate Scale Belies Powerful Punch

About her selection of the artwork to feature on the cover, juror and Hammer Museum senior curator Anne Ellegood wrote that she was "struck by the rawness and honesty of Maja Ruznic's paintings. Their intimate scale belies their powerful punch, each portrait a study of the intricacies of the human psyche. . . . The masked face in Self Portrait as the Mother of All Evil is initially disturbing, but this feeling is quickly followed by a sense of affinity, as the awareness that we all wear different masks throughout our lives (indeed, throughout the day) sets in."

Just a bit of digging into Ruznic's inspiration for making this work turns up a whole set of masks, in a sense. Tragedy and injury, as much as hard work and a commitment to remain true to a personal and diaristic approach, have played significant roles in the evolution of her career and subject matter. Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1983, she lived through experiences of war, refugee camps, and emigration before the age of 12.

Her family eventually settled in the Bay Area, and she went on to study social welfare with an emphasis in psychology at UC Berkeley while running on the track and field team. She says that her second major -- in art -- came about somewhat by accident. "I started taking art classes for fun. Toward the end of my second year, my teachers encouraged me to apply for the honors studio and to continue developing my work."

CCA Faculty Help Shape a Career

A desire to study with the likes of Mary Snowden and John Zurier, coupled with a need to stay close to family, landed Ruznic at CCA for her MFA. "Rajkamal Kahlon, whose class I took my second year at CCA, was a big fan of my small works on paper. In retrospect, I realize that her enthusiasm is a huge reason why I continued down that path."

Vivian Bobka and Jordan Kantor were also very influential, asking the tough questions: "What is your intention? Is the medium you are working with the best for what you are trying to say? How articulate is your work?" These self-interrogations continue to plague Ruznic, she says, but with "a healthy dose of good anxiety!"

Since graduating Ruznic has also benefited from a series of studio visits with Binta Ayofemi that have helped her think about how to integrate painting, performance, and geography into her conceptual practice.

Anxiety is key, here. The impact of Ruznic's work comes out of her tenacious focus on precarious, dark states; "unease," "failure," and "discomfort" are terms that feature prominently in her artist statement. "As a kid, I learned to fictionalize discomfort and become a scientist regarding my own emotions. My mother had a lot to do with this. She made everything at the refugee camps seem less terrible by making it appear less 'real.'

"This discovery is something I have carried into my adulthood and into my artistic process. Afflictive emotions make me curious about the human condition -- and I make work about it. I look for things in my surroundings that trigger certain memories. It's a way of simultaneously remembering and quickly forgetting by being engrossed in a completely new, fresh situation."

Making Painting Come Alive

Performance is one new and fresh situation that has captured Ruznic's interest of late. "My first performance came through Allison Smith's project The Cries of San Francisco. Several other artists and I invoked the historic tradition of street peddlers hawking their wares with melodic calls and songs as a way to offer up social revelations on employments, habits, and callings.

My character was the Emotional Trash Collector, who collected psychological baggage and offered a portrait of the storyteller for only five dollars. The character exposed me completely. I could not hide behind my sketchbook, but rather found myself in direct contact with my subjects. There was an enormous amount of vulnerability and fragility at stake as I listened to strangers' stories of loss, jealousy, anger, grief, and so on."

This new means of connecting with unease, discomfort, and the desire to stay present and "on edge" has proved intriguing to the artist. Since The Cries of San Francisco she has performed Perfect Place / No Place: Re-Imagining Utopia at San Francisco's Million Fishes Arts Collective, and she continues to imagine other scenarios for developing this area of her practice -- finding ways, as she puts it, to make her paintings come alive.

Her current activities include teaching in the San Francisco Parks and Recreation "Art After School" program, where she says the children offer a continual source of inspiration. "I've recently learned about wabi sabi through Michael Rosenthal, the owner of the gallery I will soon be working with. Wabi sabi is a Japanese aesthetic worldview centered on the acceptance of transience, and a conception of beauty that encompasses asymmetry, simplicity, austerity, intimacy, and (this part is my favorite) an appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

"When I work with kids, I try to teach them about a way of making work that does not need to be perfect or look realistic. I notice that a lot of kids believe that if something does not look real, it is not art. I encourage class discussions where we brainstorm about what is "real," "perfect," or "right." Toward the end of the discussion, I notice a shift in how they approach art making. This is the greatest joy of being a teacher!"

Ruznic is currently planning a book of short stories accompanied by images of her paintings and drawings. These impulses are new variations on a set of instincts that manifest in all the work Ruznic makes -- instincts that hark, again, back to her childhood. Fleeing her homeland, she made a lasting place for the fleeting scenes around her by putting them down on paper as drawings: "I started recording things around me in my sketchbook.

It was almost like hoarding happenings. This became my way of being present in the world." Grounded in this intense mobile presence, her artwork today finds its own ways to come alive as it moves in the world.

Read More About Maja Ruznic

SF Weekly: "Art, Performance, and Odd Wares Rise Above Mid-Market Din in The Cries of San Francisco" (by Larissa Archer)

KALW News: "The Cries of San Francisco: Artists Celebrate the Call of the Street Peddler" (by Sara Bernard)

San Francisco Bay Guardian: "Crying in Public: Being Brave Through Site-Specific Choreography on Market Street" (by Matt Sussman)

Refinery 29: "1 Girl, 4 Looks: A Hot Local Artist Shows Off Her Creative Go-To Outfits" (by Katie Hintz-Zambrano)

BLIC: "Slikarka koja osvaja nagrade u SAD: Povratak u Bosnu mi je promenio pogled na svet" (by Irena Hadziomerovic)