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Josh Hagler & Maja Ruznic @ Jack Fischer

Maja Runzic: The Stain Man, 2014, ink on paper, 44 x 30"
Among the Missing is a two-person show by partners and collaborators Josh Hagler and Maja Ruznic.  Its name comes from a chapter of the art book Drift, another collaboration by the couple that features work made on a journey from San Francisco to Paris, Germany, Copenhagen, and, most poignantly, Jordan.  While in Jordan, the two worked with Patch Adams’ clown troupe administering his signature unorthodox medicine to refugees of the Syrian civil war.  Though the odyssey continued afterward, their work with refugees colored the experience.  The work on view suggests how artists coped with the crisis.
Ruznic has been known in the past for her small, adroit ink paintings of phantasmic figures resembling distorted ghosts on white paper.  Here she adds dark stained backgrounds and larger paintings to the mix.  Both have the effect of materializing the phantoms, making them more imposing and harder to ignore.  The Stain Man looks out from darkened eyes, creating a palpable presence in the gallery.  While all of Ruznic’s figures speak of need with their dejected posture and hunger-shriveled features,they are seldom more than representations, melancholy but distant.  The figures in Big Things Take Place at Night are people in the same room.  Suddenly you are the alien presence, unmoored among strangers who discuss midnight transactions in a language you’ve never heard.  While the larger, darker offerings are refreshing and imposing, I find myself drawn to the ephemera of earlier work.  The Blue Wailer was made after observing countless mourning women wearing hijabs.  Ruznic imposed a “formal challenge” on herself to capture this symbol of women refugees with as few colors and as few strokes as possible.  The result is a piercing blue form that oscillates between a moaning bust — hands tented, eyes up — and a standing figure with strong legs, hands over it eyes, and a gaping black hole in its chest.
Josh Hagler, "And then later that Night…," 2014, oil on canvas, 48 x 36"

On the opposite wall from Ruznic’s paintings are the six larger oil works by Hagler.  Each is based on a specific scene from Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 black-and-white psychedelic western Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp.   The film follows Bill Blake, the titular dead man, who is simultaneously a milquetoast accountant turned outlaw and a reincarnation of visionary poet William Blake.  Hagler has been interested in the symbolism of Dead Man for more than 15 years.  His recent body of work, The Unsurrendered, used 19th century western vernacular paintings as a “skeleton” for images of gods and superheroes.  This gave Hagler a segue into Dead Man as a further exploration of his own “spiritual wilderness” absent in the religion of his childhood.  Hagler contends that William Blake was already dead before he was shot with “the white man’smetal”.  For Hagler, then, the film is about redemption, a kind of Passion for the visionary artist to redeem his soul from the sin imposed by the mechanization and violence of western culture.  This, however, is not so much a linear path as it is a repeating purgatory.  That’s why Hagler titled the piece depicting the final scene of the film with a quote from the beginning: And then later that night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, ‘why is it that the landscape is moving but the boat is still?’

Runzic: Death has a Friend

Though the film is black and white, Hagler applies his own palette of somber violets and blacks and soaring whites, yellows and golds to activate the religious iconography inherent in the subject.  The work often bleeds into abstraction, at moments dissolving the imagery entirely.  Both the palette and the abstraction resonate with Ruznic’s work.  These painters, who live together and work in the same space have obviously influenced one another, though their approaches remain distinct.  Ruznic, who was a young girl refugee from the Bosnian War in 1992, tints her work with the kind of gallows humor of a survivor, shown in titles like Death Has a Friend and He Sucks and So Does She.  Hagler attempts to break free of his own anxieties as the heir of colonists and usurpers.  Both find reckoning in their painting.

Josh Hagler & Maja Ruznic: “Among the Missing” @ Jack Fischer Gallery through May 31, 2014.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento.  His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions.  His work has been exhibited at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento and at Axis Gallery and online.

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