Sunday, September 3, 2017

the lost cause

The linchpin of my upcoming exhibit is a painting of two men in business suits, shaking hands. Followers of this blog have seen this image several times already.

John Rosewall, Bargain, 2017

My intention in the exhibit is to trace the effects of that handshake: the many forms of violence, physical and otherwise, perpetrated against women, people of color, LGBT individuals, the poor, and members of other marginalized groups, violence that makes its appearance in the world as an effect of those men coming together in a nefarious bargain. Though the individual perpetrators of these acts of violence have names and faces, homes and families, the power by which they act extends far beyond the individuals involved. The title of the show, Grip, and the anonymity of the figures in the paintings, allude to this twofold status of violence. The victims in my paintings are, at one and the same time, victims of a concrete fist at the end of an undeniably real arm, and victims of the institutions that codify and perpetuate the abstract power that stands in the shadows, providing energy, alibi, and ideological justification. The victims are, to put things simply, held in the grip of Power. In the United States, and in much of the world, Power means white power--small "w," small "p"--that is, the power of wealthy white business and political elites to rape the world's people and resources in endless cycles of exploitation.

But not every grip in the show is a violent one. Two of the works use the motif of the grip in quite another sense. In one, a victim of African descent is being rescued from a scene of violence. First responders—who are, like the victim, of African descent—rush him from the scene by carrying him in their arms; on the victim’s upper arm we see the firm grip of someone who is helping to steady the man. Here the grip is ameliorative—perhaps, one hopes, restorative—though the fate of the man is far from clear. In an utterly gratuitous gesture of humanity, another hand reaches out to catch the blood dripping slowly from the victim’s foot.

John Rosewall, Recovery, 2016

In the second painting, a man in a surgical mask gathers evidence in the aftermath of a massacre. He bends from the waist in order to lift a tarp from the skeletal remains of a nameless victim; the viewer sees the top of a skull beneath a bulge in the cloth. The examiner wears the white gloves of a medical technician. One hand closes like a fist around a corner of the tarp, while the other is decidedly more gentle: thumb and forefinger do the work of lifting while the pinkie extends, incongruously delicate, another note of grace in the midst of horror.

John Rosewall, Evidence, 2016

These latter two works express the impossible negation of the grip in that originating handshake. They show the awesome, implacable will of those who reject a power that cannot be denied. It is futile to try and far too late. The bomb has gone off; the victim is dead. In the words of Alain Badiou, “we are, at the level of intellectual representation, still prisoners of the conviction that we cannot do away with it, that this is the way of the world, and that no politics of emancipation is possible.” In the language of Badiou’s fellow philosopher Slavoj Zizek, these latter two paintings show us the dogged pursuit of a lost cause.

But Zizek’s title is In Defense of Lost Causes, and one can’t forget the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Perhaps it’s not the successes, but the better failures that sustain humanity. Going back to Zizek, this time from The Year of Dreaming Dangerously: “every intervention is a jump into the unknown, where the result always thwarts our expectations. All we can be certain of is that the existing system cannot reproduce itself indefinitely. . . . We should fully accept this openness, guiding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future.”

I have no doubt that the paintings in Grip are failures. I can only hope that’s their saving grace.

Monday, August 14, 2017


Charlottesville happened over the weekend, and one can already foresee, as I write on this Monday morning, the week’s CNN obsessions: Trump’s statements, and the fate of the murderer. Each of these, in its own peculiar way, distracts from the underlying dynamics of the situation.

As I write on this Monday morning, Trump is being vilified for his late and lukewarm condemnation of the white supremacists who marched and killed. This is fair enough, but it is also beside the point. Whatever Trump says, we know where he stands. After a lifetime of racist actions and rhetoric, after a Presidential campaign of racist dog-whistling, after stocking his cabinet and staff with racists and outright white supremacists, and after absurd proposals like his election commission and an investigation into supposed discrimination against whites, Trump has made himself the perfect figurehead for, and enabler of, a resurgent white supremacist power structure. He could reject David Duke to his face, on national television, and Duke would understand that it was only for show.

As I write on this Monday morning, our racist Attorney General is hinting that the murder of Heather Heyer may be prosecuted as domestic terrorism. One can only hope that Sessions will feel pressured enough in the weeks to come to follow through with this decision, against what are no doubt his native prejudices. At the same time, there is a sense in which the decision is beside the point once again. Had the marches occurred without physical violence—had the white supremacists occupied campus and street with their Tiki torches, Nazi salutes, assault rifles, and nothing more--would this not have been, nevertheless, an act of terrorism? What is the purpose of torches and racist slogans except to create terror? What has it ever been?

There is another problem with focusing on the murder as the one and only terrorist act. People are irredeemably violent. There will always be someone, on any side of an issue, willing to throw a punch, squeeze off a shot, or drive a car into a crowd. Focusing on acts of violence can be strangely de-politicizing. For every neo-Nazi willing to kill a Heather Heyer, there is someone willing to shoot a police officer in Dallas. More importantly, whenever one points to a James Alex Fields, or to neo-Nazi marchers, the more quietly racist supporters of Trump are provided an avenue for evasion. “I’m not a killer; I’m not marching with torches; I just want people on all sides to be treated fairly, with equality and justice, including whites.” But of course this is not what they want. If they did, they would not be supporting a racist regime.

Finally, one has to beware of sloppy language. Slogans are always reductive and must always be avoided. “Love conquers hate” is from one perspective a meaningless platitude, from another, a misleading analysis. It implies that one is guided by either one or the other emotion, when this is clearly not the case in human affairs. The white supremacists are as clear about what they love as what they hate. The problem is not their emotions, but their ideology; the problem is not that they hate rather than love, but that they love and hate the wrong things. As Zizek puts it: “Soldiers are not bad per se—what is bad are soldiers inspired by poets, mobilized by nationalist poetry.” The same principle holds for the other side. Everyone knows what Guevara said about love, but he also wrote: “a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.” Or as Nietzsche puts it: “I love the great despisers.”

Okay, that Nietzsche quote is taken out of context. But you get the idea. Cut me a break. It’s only Monday morning.

John Rosewall, Bargain, 2017

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Every painting in my upcoming exhibit, Grip, features a male hand curled into a grip of some kind. In one painting, two men engage in a simple handshake; in another, a drone pilot clutches a bright red joy stick; in a third, a man thrusts his fist into the hair of the woman he is assaulting. "Touch" is one of the earliest of the images. When I made this painting, I was still working out my approach to the series: the deep black backgrounds, the simplified representational forms, the elimination of every extraneous detail—all of it was new, and the choices were mostly intuitive. In the photograph on which I based the painting, the officer making the arrest is plainly visible, full figure, from the rear, an anonymous representative of the law. Cropping out everything but his arm and hand was a simple decision based on a desire to focus on the figure in the white tee-shirt, whom I saw, from the beginning, as a victim of the criminal justice system. Later, when I settled on a title for the show, I liked the idea that the touch in this painting could be seen as a variation on the repeated motif of the grip.

John Rosewall, Touch, 2016

Of course I connected the image immediately to the phrase “the long arm of the law.” It was a way of thinking through the relationship of the concrete individual officer to the abstraction of the carceral state. Without quite understanding it yet, I was wrestling with a problem that Slavoj Zizek describes in his book The Year of Dreaming Dangerously: how to represent in art “the totality of contemporary capitalism.” This question arises during a discussion of The Wire, which series-creator David Simon describes as “a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces.” The “totality” of “institutions” describes exactly what I’m trying to represent with the motif of the grip. It also describes why I eliminate virtually all identifying features of the people in my work. The paintings are not about the conflict between individuals, but rather, about how individuals are caught in the violent grip of contemporary institutions, whether that means capital, patriarchy, the militaristic state, or the prison-industrial complex.

The officer in the painting, from the evidence of the hand, is too small to possess any real physical mastery over the much larger detainee. But of course power doesn’t reside in the officer himself, much less his disembodied arm or the hand that touches the body. Power resides in the institution standing invisibly in the background, the anonymous totality that endows that puny hand with its Olympian weight. A fist can tighten around a lock of hair, fingers can crush a child's neck, but sometimes a touch is the firmest grip of all.

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