Wednesday, July 19, 2017


She was being beaten on the street by her husband, in the middle of the day, in plain sight of passersby, because she had refused to obey him. The very image of patriarchy: a man with no reservations about beating his wife in full view of anyone, including the law; a woman reduced to the status of a possession and displayed as such to the world.

As usual I cropped close, eliminating elements denoting place, removing the figures to a de-contextualized, black space. I made an adjustment to the angle of the woman’s arm. Neither figure would be identifiable, and the man would be represented, for the most part, by an arm of his own, a blocky, rigid, explosive arm, and by a fist thrust into the woman's hair: his instrument of power, the pure symbol of Power. Her pants were black; there’s a lot of black in my work. I thought: those are harem pants. Purple.

John Rosewall, Obedience, 2016

And still, that pose. Where had I seen that pose before? Legs toward the viewer, not widely spread but not closed either. Arm, in this case, one arm, thrown behind her head. And then I remembered.

Henri Matisse, Odalisque, 1926

A Google search of "odalisque" calls up many pages of similar images. This icon of exotic sexual allure hides the system of slavery on which it depends. The voluptuousness of the setting mirrors that of the woman herself, and both are ruses hiding the Real: the horrible vacuum of a life reduced to servitude and the fist that is the instrument, real and symbolic, of Patriarchal Power.

Clockwise from upper left, all by John Rosewall: Obedience (detail), 2016; Bargain (detail), 2017; Reach (detail), 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017



As a child I used to cut up refrigerator boxes with a pocket knife in order to construct a nearly life-sized replica of the cockpit of a military fighter jet. To complete the effect I would only need an abandoned chair, instrument dials drawn in black Magic Marker, and an old broomstick between my legs for a joystick. One leans in the direction of the turn and mumbles technical-sounding gibberish into an imaginary headset. It was the mythology of speed and the seduction of technology that made me want to fly those planes, not the desire to serve my country or the more base desire to kill. In the drive to construct a virtual facsimile, I spent hours in the library in search of photographs, diagrams, anything to help me make my creations more realistic. In the meantime the grown-ups around me, many of whom had been through actual war and had certainly earned a respite from it, were sitting in their easy chairs, watching Vietnam on TV. I loved the idea of virtual reality before the term even existed and would have been thrilled to know that in a very few years I would be able to sit in those very same easy chairs, in front of a PlayStation console, and experience a more realistic simulation of flying than anything I could ever have built. I hadn’t yet learned the disturbing aspects of the simulacrum, the simulation that in its endless recopying replaces the grounding of what used to be called, quaintly, reality.

How far from this kind of simulation is the reality of fighting a war with drones? To judge from Mark Brown's article in The Guardian, not very far:

“It is a lot like playing a video game,” a former Predator drone operator matter-of-factly admits to the artist Omer Fast. “But playing the same video game four years straight on the same level.” His bombs kill real people though and, he admits, often not the people he is aiming at.

Perhaps culture will always invent a way to make its young people accept the killing of certain others as natural. Perhaps the process of socialization engineered by the video game, in which the child becomes inured to taking life in certain antiseptic conditions, is not so different after all than the one my generation experienced, playing war in the yard and dolling up our G.I. Joes while across the world the real life soldiers were trudging through the muddy jungles of Vietnam. Maybe childhood is always a preparation for war. But maybe it’s not only the warriors who are being prepared. The problem with the simulacrum is that it’s sexier than reality. The drone pilot sees the bodies shatter--I've read that they suffer from PTSD in the same way as soldiers in battle--but we, in front of our screens at home, only see the spectacle of the buildings exploding on cue. I think it’s not the pilots who are desensitized, but the rest of us, we spectators of the spectacle, we multitudes in our easy chairs who watch our screens, tweet our praise or indignation, and either raise the flag in honor of victory, or congratulate ourselves for taking part in the resistance. Here’s Zizek:

It could be said that the typical World Wide Web surfer today, sitting alone in front of a PC screen, is increasingly a monad with no direct windows onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever in a global communication network. The masturbathon, which builds a collective out of individuals who are ready to share the solipsism of their own stupid enjoyment, is the form of sexuality which fits these cyberspace coordinates perfectly.


The distance between the child’s bedroom with the PlayStation in the corner, and the base where pilots operate killing machines, is only part of the story. There’s also the distance between the base and the target. Pilots in Nevada, sitting in easy chairs, can squeeze a missile into a village in Afghanistan. If the sun never set on the British Empire, today’s United States is the world’s omniscient eye. The villager must know by now that somebody in the Pentagon is watching him weed the yard.

Two men shake hands in Washington. The watch commander picks up the phone. In Nevada a drone pilot finishes his coffee and drives to work. An hour later the villager sees a glint of light in the sky. It’s the last thing he sees.

John Rosewall, Reach, 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

paint it, black

Starting a new project always entails making bottom-line choices that will carry through from one work to the next. One of these initial choices, for the work that I’m doing now, had to do with ground. When I conceived the earliest of these paintings, my first priority was to achieve the ultimate in austerity. I would have to be rigorous in my choices in order to ensure that nothing made it into the works that was not absolutely necessary. As Robert Bresson commands in his Notes on the Cinematograph, “Cut what would deflect attention elsewhere.” I wanted nothing that would take away from the symbolic relationships of the figures. Starting with photographs of current events, usually from press sources, I was already cutting enormous amounts of information in the form of objects and people surrounding the principal figures. It seemed logical, even obligatory, to do the same with the elements of setting. I was also thinking a lot at the time about the de-contextualized existence of traditional sculpture, about how the figures, on the one hand, were sufficient in themselves, but on the other implied a setting simply with the fullness of their presence. That’s the kind of presence that I wanted for the figures in my paintings. And if sculpture exists in a de-contextualized space, then my figures should inhabit the same kind of space, but in a form that was proper to painting. Bresson again: “It is in its pure form that an art hits hard.”

Black was the way to go. Any of the chromatic colors seemed to be an addition to the work. I wanted subtraction, and a color implies too much. In an early version of one of the pieces—“Touch,” for those keeping score—I used a soupy green to imply the institutional setting that the figure, who is being placed under arrest, is or would soon be inhabiting. This green made perfect sense, but it was also superfluous. The hand that is resting on the back of the detainee is gloved in black, and the sleeve is blue—police-officer blue. What more needs to be said? I haven’t been able to find this Bresson quote again, but I know I read it somewhere: “If one violin is enough, don’t use two.”

Still, part of me worried about the possibly facile nature of this choice. Black was almost too closely associated with the dark impulses of human nature, exactly the sorts of impulses about which I was painting. From The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” to the Netflix series Black Mirror, the absence of color has signified, perhaps too neatly after all, the absence of hope or redemption. It has signified death, the final destination for many of the figures I was depicting. I could hear Ian, the manager of Spinal Tap, justifying the black cover of Smell the Glove to a suspicious David St. Hubbins: “David, every movie in every cinema is about death. Death sells.” Maybe the black grounds weren’t so much an absence as a presence that was too on-point after all, or worse than on-point: tacky.

But when I started to hang multiple paintings together, my initial feeling seemed to bear out. By letting the figures hover in a deep black space that bore no trace of any existing, real place, the figures created their own setting, a setting that could not be fixed but that somehow encompassed the disparate activity in the different paintings, as if it all was taking place in some indistinct but coherent zone. One version of an indistinct, place-less zone where all things happen is, of course, the aforementioned black mirror that all of us carry around these days. It must have been Baudrillard who wrote that television is the place where all things happen. Now, of course, it’s cyberspace, which we “enter” on our phones. Can a color depict what we have come to know as a place that we visit but never inhabit? If so, it must be black, the color that is no color, the color of ultimate absence. “How much more black could this be?” asks Nigel, looking into the album cover that is a black mirror avant la lettre. “And the answer is, ‘None. None more black.’”

But another version of this indistinct zone is perhaps more relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish. It has to do with the difference between reality and the Real: between the place where things actually happen, and the space where they give way to a deeper truth. In his book Violence, in which he endeavors the task of “looking at violence awry,” Zizek expands on an idea from Wallace Stevens of “description without place”:

This is not a description which locates its content in a historical space and time, but a description which creates, as the background of the phenomena it describes, an inexistent (virtual) space of its own, so that what appears in it is not an appearance sustained by the depth of reality behind it, but a decontextualised appearance, an appearance which fully coincides with real being. . . . it extracts from the confused reality its own inner form.

This describes perfectly what I’m seeking to do by using the deep black spaces. I’m removing the figures from their “historical space and time,” from the “depth of reality behind” them, and creating “an inexistent (virtual) space” that “coincides with real being.” It brings us back to the difference between reality and the Real. Removing the figures from “reality” means only that they have been excised from their immediate context, the particular field, street corner, or building in which they were photographed. In "Touch" this means fashioning, out of the absence of the black ground, a setting for the figure that is more than the institution, for his Real is the nightmare of the state's obscene power. Taking away the trappings of place means that we can now re-contextualize the figures in a space that is identified with the Real, in order to highlight the deeper relationships between them, and the underlying, truer state of things. From the “confused reality” of the photographic models, I’m trying to discover reality’s “inner form.”

It’s what you do when you need that extra push over the cliff. Maybe all the Real really means is turning reality up to eleven.

John Rosewall, Touch, 2016

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

art, violence, and fellow feeling

For the past couple of years, I’ve been painting violence. I base the paintings on photographs from press websites, blogs, and other online sources. In these images, which are pared down and modified from the original material, the victim is fully rendered while the perpetrator remains either unseen or represented by an arm or a hand, by a reach, a punch, a chokehold. What’s the point of representing this kind of violence when anyone with any political consciousness at all knows already that it’s happening? I don’t think I’m enlightening anyone, though I can certainly play the usual games. We all know how to write artist statements by now. I can discuss my process until eyes glaze over. I can explain the critique of Western power structures, of patriarchy, of a politics of destruction that reaches from the United States to the farthest corners of the globe and back again. But if I’m not saying anything that people don’t already know, why make this art in the first place?

These are the sorts of images that one would expect to possess a political intent. Of course the works are political in that they have to do with power, oppression, and victimization. But I have always had it in my head that “political art” seeks a concrete, almost measurable effect: to change minds, to alter the discussion, to convince, to teach. I’m not trying to do any of those things. In fact, I’ve never considered art a very effective agent of political change, not least because artists are usually preaching to the converted. Of course it’s thrilling to believe that one’s work has the power to illuminate, that one can reach into somebody else’s brain, pull the cord, and turn on the light. I’ve always heard that The Sportsman’s Notebook was instrumental in convincing Czar Alexander II to end serfdom in pre-revolutionary Russia. Perhaps the Czar really did need to be shown the misery endured by the serfs under his reign. But I wonder if Turgenev’s stories had an effect, not because they taught the Czar about an institution he knew very well existed and must have known produced misery, but rather because they struck an emotional chord that even a czar could not unhear.

I’ve always thought that the artist’s work is to express an understanding of the human condition. Perhaps this type of expression can, at times, educate an audience or change an opinion, but I believe it’s more proper to think in terms of sympathetic communication and a shared understanding. The artist expresses, in a clear, succinct (Proust notwithstanding), comprehensive way, something the audience already knows or feels. The effect is not to change minds or enlighten, but to provoke catharsis in the Aristotelian sense—the cleansing arousal and release of emotion. Such a goal might seem, in highly politicized times like these, as lacking ambition or weight. I don’t think so.

Late in the second chapter of The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson remembers a conversation with his father in which the older man conjures up an image of a “dark diceman” who not only tosses out man’s fate according to chance, but does not even care about the outcome of the roll. It would be absurd to believe that anyone reads this passage and thinks, “Well, ten minutes ago I thought the world was suffused with meaning, but now that I’ve read William Faulkner’s powerful and persuasive writing, I am suddenly convinced that my life and all life is, indeed, meaningless.” In actuality, we don’t learn anything from the passage. Instead, with a convulsive flash of intellect and emotion, we feel the idea that the world has no meaning. We feel it because we have felt it before. We don’t necessarily believe it as an ultimate conclusion about our existence—some of us might—but we have passed through the sensation, at some point in our lives, of the absurdity and blind chance outcome of the world. Faulkner has not convinced us of anything, but he has constructed the opportunity for a shared understanding, for communication in the deepest sense of the word. This heightened moment comes into existence thanks to the shocking clarity of the author’s vision—a vision that is singular and, at the same time, not singular at all.

We don’t step in front of Maya Lin’s Memorial because we want to learn something about the war in Vietnam. We already know how many soldiers died, we are not going to remember their names when we go home, and there is no other “information” in the work. I can’t believe that the Memorial changes anyone’s opinion; I would guess that it only hardens that opinion, no matter where on the political spectrum it lies. We go because the artist has produced a clear expression of feeling—about the War in Vietnam, about the cost of all war—a feeling that we already possess in some form. We go because we trust that Lin has done the work of the artist: to activate feeling, to crystallize understanding and emotion, to construct the space for catharsis. The work enriches us though we learn nothing that we did not know before and gain nothing of any utility. Perhaps that’s precisely why it enriches us. It teaches us nothing but reminds us of everything.

John Rosewall, Marker, 2016

Thursday, May 18, 2017

still dealing

“The only real fucking is done on paper,” Pynchon writes in Gravity’s Rainbow, and it’s never been more true. Trump signs an executive order, and the rivers fill with coal dust. Not that it had ever stopped, exactly. But now they don’t even hide the collusion. Step on stage, let the cameras roll. Put ‘er there, Pal. Deal?

The collapsing of oppositions, of all categories and distinctions, has been brought to completion with the apotheosis of Trump. Politician or celebrity? Outsider or insider? Gangster or businessman? Friend or enemy? All of them golf at the same private clubs; all of them wear the same suit. We can’t hear what they’re saying, but we can see them shaking hands.

Ruler and ruled: that one's still in play. Power sits in a golden room and divides the preterite from the elect. How many kids did we kill today? We don’t count that high anymore.

In Glengarry Glen Ross, Al Pacino plays the consummate hustler who fills the space with words that mean nothing—until he goes in for the kill. Mamet depicted a hyper-masculinity which at the time had slipped into anachronism. “I swear, it’s not a world of men,” laments Pacino’s Ricky Roma. But now it’s a world of men again, men who wear long red ties like an amulet, who ride horses shirtless, who laugh all the way to Caymans. Put ‘er there, Pal. Deal?


John Rosewall, Bargain (detail), 2017

Saturday, May 13, 2017

third verse, different from the first

I started my blog, Terrain, back in January of 2012. At that time I was making photographic abstractions and was fascinated by the correspondences that I saw between the work that I and other abstract photographers were doing and the work of abstract painters. The idea of the blog was to place photographs and paintings side by side in order to explore these common threads.

Ever since I began to paint in 2014, my work has taken a markedly different direction. I now consider myself a realist painter, and my subject matter is power: how power moves from the inside out, from the top on down, from West to East, from capitals to countrysides, from the powerful, through their agents, to the powerless below. But I’m still fascinated by correspondences. My paintings, for instance, have so far been based on news photographs, maintaining their connection to the real of world events. But they are also based on the reporting that I see, the reading that I do, and the writing that I create. More and more I’ve come to think of my art practice as multi-faceted, with the images occupying only the most prominent position in a nexus of seeing, reading, writing, and painting.

This interpenetration of news, critical theory, photographic images, essay writing, and most of all, painting, is what I'll be exploring in the future here on Terrain. Deal?

John Rosewall, Bargain, 2017

Thursday, May 31, 2012

All Together Now

stan brakhage

still from the hand-painted film night music, 1986

still from the hand-painted film the dante quartet, 1987

still from the hand-painted film love song, 2001