2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Emmett Ramstad

2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Emmett Ramstad

Published March 30th, 2024 by Russ White

Through sculptures and installations inspired by public sites of private care — particularly among queer communities — Ramstad archives life, death, and all the spent tissues in between

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the first in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2022 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2022 cohort includes Pao Houa Her, Amanda Lovelee, Lamar Peterson, Emmett Ramstad, and Jonathan Thunder.

This series of written profiles has been developed concurrently with a series of video profiles produced by MCAD, the McKnight Foundation, and Clint Bohaty, available at the bottom of this page.

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Photo by Rik Sferra


Public bathrooms are transformational spaces. It occurred to me on a recent visit to MSP that airports are where you can see this phenomenon best — they’re basically just long hallways, so the bathroom doors have nowhere to hide. Sitting at your gate or waiting while a friend runs in for a pit stop, you will witness people enter the bathroom and emerge a few minutes later, ever so subtly just a little bit different. Perhaps they are moving with less urgency; maybe they’re shaking their hands dry. They come out a little lighter — primped, freshened, washed, and relieved — and then reenter the flow of traffic as though nothing has happened.

Inside, of course, it’s less mysterious and decidedly less glamorous. These are not exactly rooms for rest; everyone is putting a lot of energy into focusing on themselves: eyes forward, no talking, fixing your hair, checking your teeth, trying to get the damn motion sensor faucet to turn on. Inside a stall, this public sense of privacy is even more heightened, as you perform whatever intimate processes you need to, hidden behind closed doors but still in the open air of a shared space, within earshot of strangers. You wait, you wipe, you flush, you wash up, and you slip back out to rejoin the herd.

These rituals and these spaces are so ingrained as to be mundane, but to Emmett Ramstad, there is nothing boring about it. “I have thousands of pictures of bathrooms on my phone,” he says. “Like, I take pictures of my kid, and I take pictures of public bathrooms. We're talking tiles, that pink soap that drips onto the floor — so many pictures of that — you know, where the doors meet. And then I take pictures of beautiful things in nature.” When I ask if he finds beauty in bathrooms, he replies, “I think I do.”


I'll Be Right Here Waiting For You, 2023. Paper towel dispensers, paper toweling, tissue boxes. Photo by Emmett Ramstad.


Ramstad has built his sculpture and installation practice around bringing the processes and artifacts of personal care into the gallery. It’s a natural fit: both galleries and restrooms typically embrace the aesthetics of neutrality — white walls, beige colors, right angles, and the implied sense of cleanliness that comes from simplicity. But of course neither space is neutral, and they never have been.

“At the heart of all of this, the work started because I'm a trans person,” he says. “I've been so fucked with in bathrooms since I was a teenager. So that trauma is [juxtaposed with], like at gay bars, having sex in the bathroom. If you've both been super harassed and also had really pleasurable experiences in a bathroom, that’s interesting.”

Bathrooms have been a battleground for marginalized communities in America for years: impacting women entering the workforce across a variety of industries, being segregated by skin color during Jim Crow, becoming incrementally more accessible thanks to ADA requirements, and serving as the lightning rod for queer panic (and scandalous public outings) for decades. In 2023 alone, state legislatures across the US introduced 503 anti-trans bills; one out of every six became law, according to translegislation.com. At present, the website is tracking 513 bills across 41 states and 43 bills that have been introduced at the federal level, many of which are meant to scapegoat a group of people who just need a safe place to pee. It’s no coincidence that the fight preceding nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict’s tragic death took place in a bathroom — in 2022, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed into law a requirement that public school students be forced to use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth, a law which reporting around Benedict’s death indicates inspired the bullying they faced to start “in earnest.” The personal is political in this culture to no small degree because the personal has been politicized — cynically, cravenly, and at great cost.


Parade, 2023. Paper towel dispensers, paper toweling. Installed at The Edward J. and Helen Jane Morrison Gallery in Morris, MN. Photos by Emmett Ramstad.


Ramstad is interested in the human rituals of self-care we practice within these dehumanizing systems. His work focuses on simple, ubiquitous, and utilitarian objects often multiplied or placed out of context. In one recent installation, continuous rolls of brown paper towels emerge from white metal, wall-mounted dispensers, draping dramatically across the gallery’s rafters like buntings at a party. At the top of a landing in the gallery, the dispensers line the wall like trumpeters in formation or a row of industrial emojis happily sticking their tongues out in unison.

“I like a material that I can talk about six different things with,” he explains. “I've been working with bathrooms as a subject matter since 2016. I use the bathroom as a way to talk about a number of subjects that are political or humorous or about comfort — any intersection of all of the issues that come up with bathrooms, which are such an important space.”

With this piece, Parade, Ramstad says he simply wanted to create a sense of celebration, an installation that “just welcomed you in like a party or a parade.” The materials are bland — brown paper and white metal boxes — but, Ramstad says with a big smile, “it looks so glamorous.”


From Laying in Wait, 2018, at Hair and Nails Gallery. Photo by Seth Dahlseid.


Tissue boxes are also a recurring motif, another everyday item that Ramstad suddenly started noticing nearly everywhere: at the pediatrician’s office, on the therapist’s coffee table, at the hospital during his father’s illness, and then, most of all, at the funeral home following his father’s death.

“When I went and picked up his ashes, in there there was like, literally, probably 100 tissue boxes. They're everywhere. There's one on this ledge, and one by this chair, and one over here, and one over there.”

These tissue boxes have now shown up in his work as sculptures — angular, minimalist monoliths hilariously offering the viewer a Kleenex — and as borderline immersive installations featuring entire walls of boxes, tissues out, ready to be snatched up by anyone bold enough to touch the art (let alone blow their nose with it).


From Handy For Now, 2023. Tissue boxes, tissues, wooden platform. Photo by Rik Sferra.


The aesthetics, again, play an important role: the hard meeting the soft, the rigid box standing in contrast to what Ramstad describes as “this super flouncy, I want to say faggoty pronunciation of a tissue. It’s so funny; it’s like they’re dancing.” Each tissue emerges through the plastic membrane in the uniform boxes in its own way, moving in the breeze — delicate but durable, “standing at the ready,” he says, “for all of these fluids.”

There is a generosity to this object, but Ramstad also sees a more sinister side, what he calls “our societal relationship to containment.”

“I think it's a really nice gesture of care, but also like, ‘Clean yourself up.’” It’s that push and pull of polite society, in which pleasance is always prioritized. We all get the message: nobody wants to see you ugly cry.

Kids, of course, break these rules all the time, with all the fluids and all the emotions, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Ramstad’s role as a parent comes up quite often in our conversation. In his garage studio, he and his daughter Kit have been collaborating on a large painting that goes on view at The M in late March as part of Together, an exhibition Ramstad conceived and curated, featuring work by artists and their children. Other artists include Preston Drum, Isa Gagarin, and fellow 2022 McKnight Fellows Amanda Lovelee, Pao Houa Her, and Jonathan Thunder, among others, all in collaboration with their children or the children they take care of.

Just as the bathroom is never neutral, neither is the gallery. For Ramstad, getting ready for this exhibition has brought up a lot of questions in terms of curation (at what height should this artwork be hung, for instance, and which audiences are best served by a sixty inch center?) and what the right balance of play versus work is, especially given the added anxiety some of the kids (and parents) might feel knowing the work will be shown at a major museum.

It’s all heady stuff, but we hold it and feel it in our bodies. That’s one thing that bathrooms and bodies have in common: they can both be sites of community care. “Sometimes being a person or supporting a person is purely tending to the needs of the body,” he writes in one artist statement. During our conversation, another layer emerges. “You know, to be raised female is to be molded to take care of others. That’s not lost on me.”

Like the tissue box, there is a generosity to Ramstad’s work — an invitation to see and be seen. One installation collected used toothbrushes, another half-gone bars of soap, both relics of individualized bodily maintenance that the artist presented in a simple row along a gallery wall. Another featured a table piled with white tube socks, which audiences were invited to pair, fold, and sort according to their own habits.


Top: From Bodyless, Bodyful, Body, 2020 – 2022. Found wood, shoes, bathroom stall, and ladder. Photo by Rik Sferra. Bottom: Socks on display in Touching Each Other, 2016, at Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo by Sean Smuda, courtesy of the artist's website.


“There’s a real absence in this work,” he reflects. “The body is gone, but the body is 100% there. It’s absent and not absent, which very much relates to the research I do on archives.” Referencing both the invisibility demanded of so many communities and the literal absence of so many people lost to the AIDS epidemic, Ramstad’s work finds its place in a larger continuum of queer installation artists like Robert Gober and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In the toothbrushes and soap remnants, the paper towels and tissue boxes, there are nuanced reflections on consumer culture, environmental concerns, and queer identity, but perhaps the simplest takeaway in all of it, the greatest comfort Ramstad provides, is the gentle reminder to each of us that we are not alone in having needs.

“It's funny,” he says playfully. “I rarely get asked this, and I always want to be asked: do I love bathrooms?” So I ask, and the answer comes swiftly: “No. I mean, not any more than I would love to sit by a sunny window. But there are still questions that I have, so the artwork is really a way for me to have conversations about things that I think are interesting.”

After getting his MFA, some of Ramstad's early projects were in dance, performing with his brother and designing sets and costumes, a practice that is similarly rooted in the physicality of the human body. His interest in performance and his research into queer archives led him to stage readings of Robert Chesley’s 1985 play Jerker with collaborator Maxe Crandall, dramatizing gay phone sex conversations, bringing personal desires out of hiding and archiving them in the public view. The landline phone is, for those of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, an archival object itself, a portal to connection from a much less connected time. More than once, Ramstad has placed toilet stalls in galleries with landline telephones inside, instructing visitors to pick up the receiver and give him a call. Reach out and touch someone, as the old commercials used to say.

“They're like, ‘Hi,’” he laughs, recalling how off-putting he himself found the experiment at first. “What an exercise in awkward.” A common denominator, Ramstad soon found, was talking about the weather. 


From Laying In Wait, 2018, at Hair and Nails Gallery.  Photo by Seth Dahlseid.


Back in his studio, Ramstad has some good weather of his own. Stuck to the ceiling above the clutter of sculptures and worktables is a large photo of puffy white clouds on a beautiful blue sky — placid, pleasant, and kind of hilarious pinned up there by itself. The photo is a remnant of Laying In Wait, an earlier installation of a drop panel ceiling half-collapsed inside Hair and Nails Gallery, looming at an angle over the viewer as though the roof has quite calmly caved in. Two sections of white, industrial panels have been replaced with these peaceful, backlit sky scenes, transcendent and utterly banal at the same time, like a James Turrell installation in a dentist’s office.

The piece is a meditation on waiting, particularly in institutional settings. In the gallery, you could easily see the backside, where regular old fluorescent fixtures hung behind the blue photos — nothing magical about it. You could read the images as cheap, Hallmark escapism, the kind of empty agreeability that institutions offer our minds while they pull and prod at our bodies. But there is a less cynical reading here as well: as another gesture of care — a pleasant image clumsily placed in an unpleasant setting.

Ramstad’s studio has an actual skylight in it, so I could have just as easily looked up at the real thing, but I wonder if there isn’t something sweeter and more comforting in this facsimile. There’s the obvious humor — here the studio is what Ramstad needs a sunny escape from. In the context of some fictional examining room, though, it is also intentional. I remember laying back on a hospital bed at an emergency room one time and looking up to discover, on the drop panel ceiling right above my head, a child’s painting of a sailboat at sea under a big, wobbly yellow sun. I laughed ruefully, but there was no denying the kindness on display. It's what animates a box of tissues set out in a vestibule or a toilet seat left down for whoever's next, or maybe even an artwork put on view in a gallery: some folks could use a moment’s rest, a brief escape.

There is a tension in our culture between what’s private and what’s public — the feet visible under the toilet stall, so to speak — that seems to drive us mad. What lies hidden behind closed doors is a theme Ramstad intends to pursue more explicitly with his next body of work (no spoilers) and one that has always animated both passionate disagreement and bigoted public policy in this country, obsessed though we claim to be with “personal freedom.” Ramstad’s work — the clouds, the tissues, the laments, the celebrations — are all expressions of the simple belief that a stranger’s needs are important, too. Seeing those needs out in the open, in a gallery or a hospital bed or an airport bathroom, you realize that what people do behind closed doors is utterly ordinary. Seeking relief, in whatever form, is both a shared experience and a personal one at the same time — something to be supported, not scapegoated. If you’ve got a problem with that, you should just keep your eyes on your own stall. We wouldn't want to leave a mess for the next person. ◼︎ 


Watching You Watching Me Watching You (Hunting Season), 2017. Elevated platform, bathroom stall partitions, toilet paper cache, smoke alarms, nearly dead batteries. Photos by Rik Sferra.


Video profile of Emmett Ramstad, courtesy of MCAD and the McKnight Foundation:

To see more of Emmett Ramstad's work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram @emmettramstad.

Together is on view at the Minnesota Museum of American Art March 28 – October 13, 2024.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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