2020 Senior Thesis Exhibition
Ruby Elliott Zuckerman
guilt free homecoming
Contemplating the structures of nostalgia is at the heart of my work. I have chosen to focus on the socialist, Yiddish-speaking co-op my grandfather grew up in as a site to ask questions such as:
How important is physical space to historical understanding? How does the emotional quality of a traumatic past get transmitted? Nostalgia tends to twist space and time – what might that look like?
These questions are particularly relevant for an Ashkenazi diasporic experience, where family histories have had to be transmitted through storytelling and memory without the possibility of a physical home country. Drawing heavily on the work of theorist Svetlana Boym, I am attempting to answer these questions through a process of charcoal and ink drawing, screen printed photographic imagery, and textual layering.
The cluttered nature of my drawing speaks to Boym’s notion that “when it comes to making a home abroad, minimalism is not always the answer.” The threat of a lost home often inspires a sentimentality around everyday details – something I address with the repetition of motifs like radiators, air conditioners, fire escapes, chairs, and houseplants. I am inspired by the large scale drawings of Los Angeles based artist Kaari Upson, who creates pieces where multiple voices, dimensions, styles, and planes of existence are able to coexist. This ability to hold different realities in one image speaks to the experience of memory and trauma.
At the bottom of the piece is an imagined city block full of these kinds of contradictions – the space is neither East or West coast, urban or rural. The windows are full of intimate, detailed scenes, including screen printed photographs from the building my grandfather lived in. By placing these scenes in a fantastic physical setting, I’m asking the viewer to imagine what a Yiddish homeland might look like, and why that might be impossible to fully visualize. The figure on the left side is meant to draw attention to the impossibility of an objective history, and the phone acts as a physical reminder of the imperfect, mediated process of gaining information. Including a contemporary phone is also a reference to philosopher Henri Bergson’s description of memory as virtual reality, and the way non-physical spaces can still have a tangible existence. This work is large-scale in an attempt to transform the space the viewer is standing in, and take them on a visual journey that echoes the process of immigration explored in the piece.
Boym outlines two types of nostalgia – restorative nostalgia (which attempts to rebuild what is lost) and reflective nostalgia (which is in love with the distance itself, indulging in the heart-tug that comes from longing for something that you cannot attain). My piece attempts to both memorialize the beauty in my family’s history and critique the escapist nature of nostalgia, understanding that memory is always an imperfect construction. This piece is neither memorialization nor critique – rather I am creating a visual interpretation of subjective (and flawed) engagement with the past.
For as long as I can remember, I have used video games and art as my way of escaping from reality. Seemingly as a consequence, those fantasy worlds I poured countless hours into have haunted me in the form of recurring dreams and nightmares to this day. My dreams and nightmares are the roots of my creative production.
Traum is a series of 24”x18” digital paintings in which I reveal the concept for an original game idea, where a young boy awakens from his slumber and falls into a surreal realm through a stairwell, equipped with only his magical blanket to combat the horrors he will encounter. This series takes a peek, through the eyes of the protagonist, at the different dimensions he journeys through and six of the main villains that inhabit them.
The villains, dubbed “Leviathans”, are powerful entities that sleep deep within each realm and embody one of the protagonist’s greatest fears. In ideating the design for the Leviathans, I needed to look back at my own childhood hauntings and investigate the reasons that they induced such fear. I titled this series Traum because it is the German word for dream, but it is also not too far from trauma. With these paintings, I want to recognize the profound impact that personal experiences can have on developing minds and the imagination.
My lifetime goal with art is to go further than beauty and invoke the sublime. I believe a “good” game leaves the player emotionally exhausted, terrified in awe, and unsure of what just happened. This notion is inspired by Edmund Burke’s idea in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (Burke, 1757)
On an expansive hill on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, four basalt Boulders stand in a tight formation. The smallest is roughly the size of a compact car. The largest would completely fill my bedroom. While these boulders have sat unchanged since the cataclysm of the Missoula Flood, their surfaces—alive with countless varieties of lichen and moss—are in constant flux.
The rocks’ dual nature as both individual objects and communities of organisms lead me to interrogate the concept of the self as entirely separable from the other. In Four Rocks I seek to examine the contradictory nature of self identity by representing each of these four boulders as a diptych of an embracing couple. The embracing figures reference the themes of sensuality common throughout my figurative work, but here serve to embody the inextricable role relationships with others play in the formation of the self. The distinction between the two figures in each diptych is obscured by the communities of mosses and lichens overlaying them. The unique character of my oil pastel medium visually unifies the figures’ stone texture with that of the moss and lichen— further obfuscating the division between the drawings’ individual elements.
The concept of identity as a site for growth and change extends to the drawings themselves. As diptychs they can be reconfigured into myriad combinations. In these new configurations the figures move further away from strict realism, fitting together in new and sometimes strange and visually challenging ways. The process of physically changing the work’s composition both reinforces and premise of identity as constantly changing and also embodies the necessary discomfort and strangeness of being truly and intimately known by others.
I have lived the majority of my life within easy walking distance of the four boulders that inspired this work. When drawing these pieces I worked intuitively, relying solely on my memories to capture the feel of the rocks. The drawings that resulted are in no way perfect representations of the boulders. Rather, they are a portrait of the impression they have left in my personal self-formation. The figures in these drawings are roughly to scale with my own body. Through the act of making them I felt like an active participant in the formation of a self, one both intimately familiar and totally other. This process enabled me to directly experience the idea that inspired this body of work: that contact with others forms changes us irrevocably.
Clock In Successful
I have worked for Grounds since October of my first year at Macalester. I’ve worked every summer and school year since. When classes were suddenly cancelled and summer employment was likely to follow, I found myself at a loss. I felt robbed of the remainder of my time on Grounds and the closure that would have come with it.
Gone were the days of shoveling garages, deadheading plants, mowing, raking, weeding— all of it. Worst of all was that I would no longer be able to spend my days with the Grounds and other Facilities workers. This series started as a response to that loss and developed into a grateful celebration of the people who I have worked with over the years.
Referencing Leslie Barlow and Alice Neel’s tender approaches to their sitters, I present the workers of Grounds as central and more important than the landscape. These are candid moments, capturing moving and collaborating figures. The work is frequently cooperative— just one aspect that has helped me to feel like the crew is a second family. Although their faces are not seen, their individuality is unmistakable. Departing from painters like Jean-François Millet, I demand that viewers see these people without idealizing their labor or the surrounding land.
By rendering these images in oil paint, I am at once making these manual laborers visible and a part of the fine arts. I ask that as viewers see and appreciate this art, they may also see and appreciate the workers themselves.
These three 18”x 24” paintings are meant as a simultaneous thank you letter and love note to Grounds. Thank you for four years of answering my neverending questions; for four years of fostering laughter and warmth; for four years of showing me that kindness can be sown and grown anywhere.
It’s Lonely Inside this Mansion
Many things have served as an inspiration for my artwork through the years, however, one of my greatest inspirations has stemmed from my experience as an athlete. I have experienced the lows of defeat and the joys of success. I have also dealt with the mental struggles associated with sports and specifically, a serious injury.
I want my art to serve as a way of storytelling through my journey in a way that is relatable to all who have ever experienced some sort of trauma and the subsequent mental struggles. In an ideal world, there will be some aspect of my art that everyone will be able to connect to on a personal level. I believe that being vocal and sharing your previous struggles is an incredibly important part of the healing process, and I hope that my art can help facilitate that for not only myself but for its viewers as well.
The current project is meant to represent the compartmentalization of the brain; how we as humans push things back into the far corners of our minds and lock the doors. This display is made up of four rooms, starting in a “healthy” room, then moving to “trauma/injury”, followed by “mental struggles”, then into a “healing” room, and then finally back into the “healthy” room. It is set up in a way that it can be seen as a continuous cycle of struggle and healing.
The song Mansion by NF has served as a source of inspiration for this project. In this song, he speaks about the abuses, anger, and regrets from his life and how each “will always have a room in [his] mind.” He battles with allowing others into his mind and opening-up to speak about his problems, “’cause in order to do that [he’d] have to open the doors”, to the rooms in his mind that he doesn’t want to remember. But speaking about your struggles is a crucial part of healing, and I hope that this piece can help others unlock some of those doors in their own mind.
Think of a Memory
Having grown up with animals has left me with a deep appreciation for them and it influences the art that I make as an adult. Most of my work focuses on animal forms, both domesticated and wild.
While many people are more familiar with human forms than with animal forms (or specifically non-human animal forms as humans are also animals), I find it more interesting to explore forms less familiar, those that are dissimilar to the human form that I experience the world through. It is also a way to recreate these animals that I feel nostalgic for, helping me relive memories, both fond and less than fond. However not everyone has the same nostalgic feeling when they look at animals. My experiences may be unique, though that is unlikely. Many people may have memories of animals from when they were younger, and these memories may or may not have left an impact on them. Though the nature of memory means that there will always be a distortion present. These memories are not as accurate as they may seem, but that is what makes them interesting and impactful.
In this series, I wish to explore this concept a bit further, asking people to recount these memories and how they remember these animals, which they originally experienced through their childhood eyes. I asked people to remember and describe a memory of a wild animal that they have from their childhood, having them fill out a questionnaire. By sculpting these animals out of clay, a rather long-lasting medium, I attempt to give solid form to them again, but I also try to focus on what the young minds of these volunteers focused on, regardless of how inaccurate it may be.
Children don’t see the world in the same way as adults, often focusing on or emphasizing what their minds deem important. I feel these distortions could shed some light on how they perceived animals as children, and how they do now. The memory is filtered through the subjective eyes of a child, and then further distorted through the passage of time and the warping of recollection and the retelling of the memory. It’s less about having an accurate memory of the event and more about having the emotion tied to the memory, shaping it even now. It is a way to connect to others as they share these experiences that hold emotions that they continue to feel when they remember.