Artist Interview: Ron Saunders

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This interview was conducted as more of a casual conversation between CCA Connects Fellow Elena Gross and the artist Ron Saunders upon first seeing his work for Place/Displaced in situ.

[EG] Can you talk a little about your technique with this piece?
[RS] Sure. Each panel is 8×10 inches and it’s black-and-white silver gelatin paper. So, I work in a traditional darkroom with traditional chemicals. And I lay objects directly onto the paper, and when you do that you get a white silhouette of the object as the light is developing. So you see the figures are actually gray-toned because I took the original print and used it as a paper negative. There are 42 sheets that comprise this [piece].

[EG] What made you create this piece specifically for this exhibition?
[RS] I created it specifically for this because I had been thinking about the issues of displacement. So, displacement, what does that mean? Gentrification, what does that mean? And usually with my pieces, I sepia tone them to give a little more brown tone and make them warmer but this time I decided to stay with the gray tones because, for me gentrification is not a black-and-white issue, there’s no perfect answer to it and so I wanted to stay with the gray tones. And the figure appears to be running– you have to figure out if it is running to something or running away from something. I also didn’t want to be perfect with this, so you’ll notice little differences in the work, different shades, different tonalities, and geometries. Because the paper is not perfect on each sheet, there’s a slight shift on each sheet and I wanted that to also be part of the message even though it’s very subtle.

[EG] At first glance, the figure in the center, with the high concentration of gray tones, appears to be a black body. Was this intentional for you? Was this a conscious choice?
[RS] It is intentional. Because it’s not a solid black I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, it’s just a black figure.” And that’s why I also wanted to stay with the gray tones. If I had gone to the brown tones, I think that would’ve had even more of an association to the African-American community. But I decided I really wanted the gray tones so that people could see themselves in it. And bring themselves to it and see what they experience.

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Now, Ron turns the conversation around…

[RS] What did you see?
[EG} I think of those weird, cardboard cut-outs that you see at carnivals. Where you stick your face through one and take a photo. It’s like what you were saying, it allows you to bring yourself to the work. And to see yourself. As if you can fit your body into the place of this figure. It shows how we’re all related to this, we’re all involved in this issue of displacement.
[RS] And this has been going on forever. I think because we’re really feeling it there’s a lot of conversation that people want to have around it but if we look throughout history, there’s always been displacement.

[EG] And there’s no inside or outside of this issue. Everyone’s firmly mixed up in it.

[RS] Yeah.

Ron more fully describes his experimentation with tonality and the “hand of the artist”…

[RS] I wanted there to be a certain lightness. There’s almost a veil effect to it as well. So again, are they running through the veil? Are they on the other side of the veil? where are they within this landscape? And the figure is me.
[EG] So it’s also a self-portrait?
[RS] I think we’re each bringing ourselves to this so, I think it’s impossible to not have something about yourself in the work. You may be talking about the outside world but ultimately you’re really expressing something about yourself.

About the Interviewer:
Elena Gross is a CCA Extern for SOMArts Cultural Center and a graduate student in the Visual & Critical Studies program at California College of the Arts.

Artwork by Ron Saunders, photo by Jennifer Kang