Installation view of “Raymon Elozua: Structure/Dissonance,” Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY, 2022. Photo: Courtesy Everson Museum of Art

From the Ruins: A Conversation with Raymon Elozua

For more than 40 years, Raymon Elozua has maintained a career largely outside of the commercial art world, forging his own path in creative and enduring ways. After a brief introduction to clay in a class with Ruth Duckworth at the University of Chicago, he moved to New York in the 1970s and built a studio. In 1979, he began showing photorealistic miniature ceramic sculptures of dilapidated wooden structures—water towers, billboards, even an entire amusement park—at OK Harris. These works were enthusiastically received, but Elozua decided to move on, pursuing the Lost Labor project, a vast archive of images of American workers from 1900 to 1980, and Home Scrap, an extensive study of defunct steel mills in the Northeast and Midwest. Eventually, he relocated to the Catskills hamlet of Mountaindale, New York. There, he found the remains of Borscht Belt resorts, casinos, and bungalows, as well as the egg industry—all left behind by the tides of economic and social change. For several years, he documented these modern ruins, publishing a series of online books featuring haunting photographic images while continuing to experiment with sculptural materials in unorthodox ways. Elozua’s retrospective “Structure/Dissonance,” at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, is on view through December 31, 2022.

Installation view of “Raymon Elozua: Structure/Dissonance,” Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY, 2022. Photo: Courtesy Everson Museum of Art

Maria Porges: Can you talk a bit about your personal history? I feel like it’s the place where your work begins. 
Raymon Elozua: Both of my parents were immigrants—my mother was a war refugee from France, and my father came from Cuba via Spain. As immigrants, they suffered a loss of family, community, and history. That intrigued me growing up, because I liked history. I read a lot of history books, and when I looked around my South Chicago neighborhood, I saw factories closing, stores shutting down. As a young kid, from about the age of seven to 10, I had built model railroads, and a lot of railroading magazines were interested in history, too. But by the time I was growing up, railroads were already starting to die out.

When I started working seriously as an artist, I was really going back into American industrial history from around the 1890s to the 1920s and making structures from that time out of clay to mimic wood. Of course, they had to look abandoned or lost—standing in for what my parents experienced coming here, losing their past. My buildings were based on real things, but they were also imaginary—not replicas of things I saw around me.

That is how my childhood history impacted me. I grew up in a community of Jewish Holocaust survivors, immigrants who had fled the Germans before the war, and French war brides like my mom. There was always a sense of loss, of death and destruction, so when I started building my sculptures, it was with the sense that I had missed something, lost something, too.

The new work is based on decay and entropy, but the glass becomes a symbolic form or material that I can identify with—built on the ruins of my parent’s losses, their disappointments. I’m positive, I believe in hope—the glass shows a burst of beauty among things that are flaking, chipping, cracked.

MP: Your career path has been unusual in some ways. Can you describe your current relationship with the art world?
RE: I have no relationship with the art world. Actually it’s very complicated and the result of two factors. First, I was a member of the art world in the commercial sense—I was selling my work, it was getting recognition, and I got two NEA grants (one in painting and one in sculpture)—until 1990 when my gallery, Carlo Lamagna Gallery, was forced to shut down. My work at the time was dealing with the steel mills, and there was nowhere else that could or would show what I was doing. Second, I’m an outsider. I didn’t come up through the university system, which meant that I didn’t go to school with peers who could help introduce me to galleries. I didn’t socialize with critics or artists—I was just a person doing my work in a very naive, working-class kind of way.

By 1990, I realized I wasn’t part of the system—my work hadn’t struck a major public chord, and I was tired of doing the photorealistic clay work that had appealed to collectors. So, to make a living, I managed property, which was easy to do and still gave me time to make work. That sense of not belonging was interesting, because as a child of immigrants, there’s always that sense. You desperately want to fit into the majority culture, but because your parents are foreign you don’t. I would go to galleries every weekend and look, and not a lot impressed me. I hadn’t studied art history, I wasn’t part of any fashionable movements, I didn’t read Derrida. What I wanted to know was: How exactly do I do what I want to do? It was pretty self-centered—definitely hermetic.

But, even though I “unbelonged,” I wanted to communicate. That was the difficult part—to make work that communicated something—and it took years to achieve. That’s how I look at my current work: it’s really a portrait of my interior space. It’s not dealing with the outside world, like the [Borscht Belt] bungalows, or other things I’ve looked at closely and made a record of.

R&D IV, 2014. Terra cotta, glass, steel, and glaze, 44 x 32 x 38 in. Photo: Courtesy Everson Museum of Art, NY

MP: In terms of communication, what do all the books that you’ve produced represent for you? I feel like part of their function is to make it possible for you to express your ideas in a public and accessible way. 
Well, yes—a book endures past the opening of a show, past the four weeks the work can be seen in a gallery. It’s the same thing with music recordings, which endure long past the moment of the performance. I’ve always loved books, going back to when the bookmobile came to my neighborhood every Friday. Books took you places. So, when I started doing projects, it didn’t matter whether it was my own artwork or something like Lost Labor, the book I made created a record for other people to experience. I love the physical experience of paper, of reading a physical book, but it was fun to create books with software and share them with people virtually.

MP: Some of your books represent a record of your temporary photographic setups. Could you talk about those images? 
RE: Those are the mirror setup images. I had just moved my studio upstate. It was a way to learn. The tabletop photographs also came out of that—I was collecting rusty buckets and enamelware from the bungalows as I photographed them. I never broke in—some of the buildings were open.

Working on a setup indoors isn’t dependent on the weather—you can take pictures no matter what is happening outside. And I love photography as an intellectual process, the way the mind composes, frames. So, I thought, “I’ll build arrangements of all of this enamelware.” I thought about Morandi, but these objects related to my specific aesthetic—the pieces were rusted, falling apart. That was the impetus behind “Kitchen Table,” the first series. I didn’t want to repeat myself, so in the next series, I also used broken fragments of mirrors from dressers and more material that I’d found in the abandoned bungalows. These have a way of reflecting other things—sometimes outside of the picture—disrupting the image’s point of view. It creates abstraction, which is hard to do in photography.

One of the things I loved about all of this work was that it was temporary. I didn’t have to store a sculpture, which is always an issue. I could keep 100 prints in a box on the shelf. It was fun to use photography as a creative avenue, and those ideas ended up influencing my next group of sculptures.

Installation view of “Raymon Elozua: Structure/Dissonance,” Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY, 2022. Photo: Courtesy Everson Museum of Art

MP: In some of your sculptures, the process is really complicated, physically and conceptually. I’ve been trying to figure out what you want viewers to know or understand when they are looking at your recent work.
RE: When you talk to people, many say, “I want to be whole, I want peace of mind, to find a place of stability.” While I appreciate that, I have a restless mind. I like working because it calms the mind, but a lot of times, it’s filled with memories, dreams of things I want to do, experiences I had, fears—so many different bits and pieces—and there’s no way I can deal with all of them simply. Perfect, right-angled pieces—I just can’t make work like that.

In my most recent series, “Clarity in Confusion,” I am making sculptures of my interior. All the craziness is jumbled together—yet in that jumble, there’s a cohesiveness that can be peaceful and holistic. In other words, all of these bits and pieces can have a restful presence. There’s a quotation by Samuel Beckett that I really like: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” My life may not be a mess, but my mind is full of many things—looking back toward the past, but toward the future, too.

MP: Your education as an artist has largely been self-organized and self-driven. Could you talk about the effect that has had on your work?
RE: When you’re self-taught, you’re not told what you can or can’t do. And when you’re in a technical medium, like ceramics, the rules you learn from your teachers and professors are much stronger—“No plaster in your clay, it blows up” and “Be careful about air pockets.” I think the dilemma of schools is that they lead you down specific paths, which according to history and tradition are the right ways to do something. But those paths also stifle thinking.

Since I didn’t go to college for art, and since I worked in many different crafts, when I came to clay, I didn’t think about what I could and couldn’t do. I just cut up little strips of clay and stuck them together. You’re supposed to score a piece, put slip on it, and then score the surface you’re attaching it to, but I just put a drop a slip and stuck it on. It held—it fired. And then the same thing happened with steel: “What if I do this? What if I cover steel with clay and fire it, what will happen?” I didn’t worry about it. Since I had an aesthetic of decay, of entropy, the cracks didn’t bother me.

This was relevant when I met Lorin Silverman, the glass artist who made the blown parts in my recent work—he has a BFA in glassblowing from Alfred and is very skilled technically. I wanted to blow glass into metal, but Lorin said, “Well, you have a problem. The coefficient of expansion means that it’s going to stick to the metal. It’s going to crack. It’s not doable.” Finally I said, “Look, I’m willing to pay you to find out if we can do it. Let’s not worry about what you think will happen. Let’s just do it.” And it didn’t stick to the metal, it didn’t crack, it worked—and that gave me a breakthrough. It also reminded me again of the problems of being taught, of learning through a system, as opposed to being self-taught. 

C.i.C. I (Clarity in Confusion), 2021. Steel, blown glass, mirror, terra cotta, and glaze, 42 x 40 x 48 in. Photo: Courtesy Everson Museum of Art

MP: You have mentioned the deformation of the steel when you fire the pieces—how, for you, the work is about the process of aging, entropy, and decay that the pieces continue to go through. I’m pretty sure you were joking when you said that you’re creating work for a future generation of art restorers, but the element of decay is very meaningful to you. What are your thoughts about it?
RE: My work decays, it flakes and disintegrates. I’ve oxidized the steel to the point that it will rust as time goes on. The ceramic, which is affixed to the steel structure, is not really permanent, and parts will come off due to contraction and expansion—and that fascinates me. When you see decay or entropy in progress, it’s a reminder and a true reflection of the human condition and of our ultimate death. We look at our bodies and see a similar process. We see ourselves putting on weight, getting wrinkles. Our teeth go bad. Our joints don’t work. And there’s a fear in seeing that, because we know the ultimate destination. Part of what is interesting to me is that our society doesn’t really know how to deal with death. We don’t see deaths. We have a tacit agreement never to show pictures of a dead U.S. soldier or the damage that an AK-47 will do to kids in a kindergarten. We refuse to acknowledge death, and we hide it to the best of our ability. In my mind, decay and entropy are just subtle reminders of the imperfection of life. We’re frightened because we’re out of touch with death, because it’s a mystery.

MP: But why do you think decay is so attractive to us? Because it obviously is. 
RE: I think it goes back to the unknown. “Industrial ruin porn” has been popular over the last few years, with people photographing the ruins of Detroit, for example. It’s a fascination that goes back to the pyramids, to the Colosseum in Rome—people built this incredible marvel, and now look at it, it’s ruined. Is it a message? If it is, what does it mean? So, we view decay through buildings and objects, or patina. There’s a movement called “barn finds,” where you find a rusted-out ‘59 Chevy and put a brand new motor in it. It looks like a piece of junk, but it’s really a rebuilt piece of junk that’s as good as new. It’s just that the body has that attractive air of decay and loss. The ultimate message is that we’re all going to decay. And it’s hard to keep following that train of thought; it’s easier to be fascinated with the surface without going underneath.

Installation view of “Raymon Elozua: Structure/Dissonance,” Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY, 2022. Photo: Courtesy Everson Museum of Art

MP: Your goal to transform clay, to help it to transcend its relationship with gravity, seems related to this.
RE: In my mind, one of the limitations of clay is its sense of heaviness. That has always disturbed me. And that’s one reason I was lucky to have studied, even briefly, with Ruth Duckworth. She used 20-inch-wide press molds that tapered down to a base around one inch wide. She would press in her slab and then build huge domes on top. When you contrast her work to Toshiko Takaezu’s, which is really solid because it is thrown, or Jun Kaneko’s—Ruth’s work floats. How did she do it? Using the press molds. It’s not talked about, but that technical innovation gave her forms an essence which no one else had. Seeing that for about six months left an indelible message in my brain, that maybe clay can fly.