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.