Saturday, March 24, 2018


In addition to my work as a visual artist, I also teach college-level writing and have been doing so for more than thirty years. Every semester, in one of my Freshman Composition courses, I show Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing. It’s the fulcrum on which the semester balances, with writing assignments coming before and after the showing, as both preparation for, and processing of, the ideas raised by the film. Considering the widely publicized extra-judicial police killings of the past few years, the film has become more relevant than ever to my students, young people of color, almost all Black and Hispanic, residing, for the most part, in South L.A., Compton, Carson, and other communities not all that different from the Bedford-Stuyvesant circa 1989 that we see in the film. These are areas where the police are a presence, but a presence of a certain kind. Of the many digressions in the film—tangents from the plot line concerning Sal, Mookie, Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem, and photographs on the pizzeria’s wall-of-fame—one in particular stands out as a paradigm of the relationship to power that some, perhaps many, of my students live.

Until the final sequences of Do the Right Thing, the police are a presence mostly by virtue of their absence. Not that we can’t find plenty of low-grade law-breaking going on. Coconut, ML, and Sweet Dick Willie loiter openly on a street corner; the doomed Radio Raheem is a walking noise violation; Da Mayor hires a ten-year-old boy to buy him beer from the corner bodega; Mister Señor Love Daddy runs a bootleg radio station through a picture window, hiding in plain sight. The police do nothing about any of it. A squad car rolls down the street every now and then, making its rounds, keeping its distance, letting it all unfold. At no point do we get the feeling that the officers inside are contemplating action. No one’s getting hurt, and it’s hotter than hell. Why get out of the car?

For the residents of the neighborhood, there’s even a kind of freedom in this not-so-benign neglect. Drink beer on the street, make too much noise: nothing is going to happen to you. But then a couple of kids open a fire hydrant in order to get some relief from the heat. A middle-aged Italian in a Cadillac convertible appears at the end of the block. In typical New York fashion, full of threats and hand-waves and swearing, he negotiates safe passage down the street. But at the very last minute, just as he seems to have made it past danger, the kids douse him with the full force of the water, flooding his classic Caddy, and run off.

Soaked, apoplectic, he stumbles out of the ruined car, and the two officers are suddenly there. Our Italian wants an arrest; in fact, he wants the kids “locked under the fucking jail.” He wants, in other words, the full force of the law to come down hard on the people who have wronged him. And why shouldn’t he expect it to do so? He’s white and at least moderately wealthy, the cops are white, and the perps are just a couple of Black kids from the ghetto, without any status or identity. “What the fuck do I know their names?” he yells. “Moe and Joe, Moe and Joe . . . Moe and Joe Black, how’s that?”

But the cops are laughing, and our Italian is getting angrier, because he’s beginning to realize where he is. One of the cops walks off to take care of the open hydrant; the other closes his notepad. The police can only make a suggestion: drive away before “these people” strip your car down to nothing—in other words, before they commit another crime that the enforcers of the law will do nothing to prevent or remedy. Underneath their façade of civility and service, these cops must be laughing uproariously to themselves. Enforce the law? Here? We don’t enforce the law here. Where in the fuck do you think you are?

Of course, we know where he is: one of those zones of abandonment that we find in cities all over the world, a place where the law doesn’t apply because the structure of power has decided that the people who live there aren’t worthy of it. The man of privilege in his Cadillac convertible no doubt feels, after the great trauma of his encounter, that it’s he who has been abandoned, who has been allowed to suffer the violations of “these people.” But he’s only someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s “these people” who are hung out to dry, every day of their lives. The neglect of the police is an unmistakable sign that one is not fully human in the eyes of the law. “These people” are something less than people, human-not-quite-human, inhabiting a zone of indistinction where the law no longer applies, but where power never ceases to reign—and to reign with the potential of an excessive, terrifying, deadly force that can be visited upon “these people” at any time and for any reason. This is power raised to the level of an obscenity.

Everyone knows the famous final sequences of Do the Right Thing. Sal and Radio are fighting on the sidewalk, and when the cops arrive—the same two cops, plus others, all white—they kill Radio Raheem with a chokehold. The Italian in the Cadillac has gotten his wish; one of “these people” will now forever be “under,” in its most permanent manifestation: consigned to the grave. Obviously this isn’t justice; it’s raw force, with a message behind it. Once again we are faced with the paradigm of abandonment: abandonment by the law, abandonment to power. The actions of the police are a way of saying: we don’t find you worthy of the interest of the law, and we certainly don’t find you worthy of protection by the law, but we will, if we feel like it, very simply kill you.

This zone of indistinction is what the Italian theorist Giorgio Agemben means by the term “state of exception.” He defines the human subject captured within this state homo sacer, or sacred man—sacred not in the sense of being deserving of veneration (quite the opposite), but in the sense of being set apart, excluded. Reaching back to Roman law, Agemben cites the formulation of sacred man as he who may be killed but not sacrificed: the guilty man, no longer worthy of the religious rites that normally accompany an execution, can be killed by anyone, legally. Today, of course, executions don’t rely on sacred rites; instead, we read the sentence. The contemporary iteration of sacred man is he who is excluded, in practice, if not in theory, from the law, but whom just about anyone can kill with impunity: Radio Raheem, for instance, or Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, or any of “these people” who have been, in effect, found guilty in advance. All they do have is what Agemben terms “bare life,” the mere fact of being alive and human—more or less human, that is; human-not-quite-human. For many of us, bare life is the foundation for an empowered existence as citizens with rights. But for those whom power has determined to exclude, bare life is just about their only possession.

An African-American young man sits in a broken-down pick-up truck, one hand on a jury-rigged steering wheel, his hat pulled down over his eyes. A burning tire is on the roof of the cab, the flames licking up past the top edge of the image frame. Someone has smashed out the windshield and windows and torn the handle clean off of the door. It doesn’t seem possible that this vehicle will ever take him anywhere, but he, like my students, is holding on to the wheel, determined to drive.

John Rosewall, Drive, 2016

Thursday, November 30, 2017

island of lost souls

I’d always considered Island of Lost Souls a movie about human psychology—an allegory for the concept of the beast within. The way in which Dr. Moreau raises his animal subjects toward the human level constitutes not only an acceleration of evolution, as he claims. It also represents, analogically, a civilizing process occurring within the psyche that reminds one of the late Freud, with Moreau as the superego violently taming the id. By showing us Moreau’s failure and ultimate destruction, the movie argues that we humans can never extinguish our animal nature. Just when we think we have driven out the beast, “the stubborn animal flesh” resurfaces, and it is back to the “house of pain” for more treatment.

Recently I have started to see in the film a second allegory, one that addresses the psychology of power, specifically from the perspective of the colonizer. Looked at this way, Moreau is once again a civilizing influence, the colonial power from across the seas come to bestow the wonders of the Western world upon hapless, undeserving natives—all the better to exploit them, of course. The animals on which he experiments are like the colonizer’s raw material: the human beings who in Western eyes are little more than dogs, and only half as useful, until lifted up an evolutionary rung or two. These wretched of the earth have no other purpose than to serve the cause of modernity—in the movie, this means evolutionary science—and Moreau rules them as a god, using violence on the one hand—the whip and the laboratory—and a civilizing legal framework on the other. These forces of violence and law unite in the well-known scene at the natives’ village when Moreau, standing on the cliff above the circle of huts, cracks his whip and leads the famous recitation: “What is the law?” “Not to walk on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?” “What is the law?” “Not to spill blood. That is the law.” It’s the tightrope walk of colonial power, with Moreau performing the balancing act. The colonized must forever be kept, in the words of Sartre, at “the level of a superior ape in order to justify the colonist’s treatment of them.” Let them rise above or sink below this level, and one can expect only trouble.

Of course trouble does come to Moreau, when the half-human creatures that he has brought into being return violence for violence and kill him in his laboratory. Where do his creations find the ethical justification to break the bonds of the law and take revenge on their oppressor? For it is the genius of the movie that they do not act in haste or irrationally. Far from being the “superior apes” that the colonist’s mind must make of them, they display in this moment a greater humanity than the civilized doctor could ever imagine of them, and a greater sense of justice than he could ever aspire to himself. Having internalized the law, having taken for granted its transcendence and universality, they move on the compound only after a reasoned debate in which two points are established with evidence: first, Moreau has broken his own law by commissioning murder, the spilling of blood; second, the death of the murdered ship’s captain shows that humans, and therefore Moreau, can die. With hypocrisy as the charge, and the mortality of the god-like ruler established, the inhabitants of the island unleash their fury in a manner which, though undoubtedly cruel, fits neatly within the outlines of Biblical, eye-for-an-eye-style justice. They ignore Moreau’s violent entreaties for calm, overrun his compound, break into his surgical instruments, and lay him out on the vivisector’s table. Orwell told us a long time ago what the figure of power most deeply fears: being found out as something less than what he has always pretended to be. The unmasked actor with a gun on his belt is impotent nevertheless. Power is always in some manner a ruse.

Over the sixty-two years since the end of World War II, the United States has fallen from cultural and economic colonizer of much of the world’s population, to the status of a Moreau just before his demise: a puffed-up actor on the edge of a cliff, trying desperately to hold onto our diminishing status, wielding the instruments of war in a circus-sideshow of force, preaching a law that the people of the earth know very well we neither take seriously nor would ever apply to ourselves. The veneer is wearing thin, and good riddance to it. Though Moreau never succumbs to the least pangs of conscience, his assistant, Montgomery, finally does stand against the obscenity of power and intervenes to save Moreau’s most civilized creation, Lota, from another session in the house of pain. But one can’t help thinking that it’s too late for Montgomery, this dutiful assistant of the Western project. It’s not Moreau’s creatures who have lost their souls.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

kiss me deadly

I grew up, in the Sixties, hearing the oft-repeated argument that our technology, in the form of the nuclear bomb, had developed faster than our ability to deal with it. We could build the great whatsit with relative ease, but we lacked the ethical framework or psychological maturity to keep from destroying ourselves with our creation. I’ve not seen a better expression of this thought than the Robert Aldrich movie Kiss Me Deadly. In the film Mike Hammer, a low-life private investigator whose forte is to exploit divorce cases by playing husband and wife against each other, stumbles upon the great whatsit in the form of a mysterious hinged box. When opened—only a crack, please!—the box emits a blinding white light and the sound of a thousand voices wordlessly, furiously roaring. Hammer isn’t smart enough to divine what the great whatsit is, but he knows that everyone wants it, and he also knows, as a matter of instinct, that a piece of something big is something big. So he chases the box across post-war Los Angeles with the same slashing fury that his profession always demands from him, leaving friend and foe bloodied, beaten, and even killed in his wake. The FBI is one step behind until a half-friendly agent, having tracked Hammer down, finds a burn mark on his arm. This agent has been shadowing Hammer through most of the film, attempting to warn him off the case with hints and threats—things that a smart investigator ought to understand, but Hammer is all muscle and light on the brains—attempting, at bottom, to save Hammer from himself. Nothing has worked, so it’s time to name names: “Los Alamos, Trinity, the Manhattan Project . . .” In shock, Hammer slowly reaches into his jacket pocket. He hands over the key to the locker where the box has been stored. “I didn’t know,” he mumbles, barely able to eke out the words. “You didn’t know,” replies the agent. “Would you have acted any differently if you had known?”

The rest of the movie is beside the point, for this question is at the heart of its meaning. Would Hammer have acted any differently if he had known that the box held the awesome power of the bomb? Could he have forced himself to act differently? Could he have tamped down his instinctual drives and taken the leap onto a higher ethical plane, all at once, over the course of a day or week, in the face of potentially unimaginable riches, just because of a little new knowledge? One doubts it, though in actuality, we count on it happening every day of our lives. We are now led in this country by a man like Hammer, a man who indulges as an open secret his every instinctual drive and who evinces neither the ability nor desire to subordinate his id to the demands of reason. Yet now he holds the key to the box, the box which is no longer the metaphor in a film. Is it reasonable to believe that such a man can achieve what Hammer finally did achieve, though admittedly too late: to realize that he is over his head and must hand the key to someone else?

But it would not be enough in any case. Another such a one would come along again soon. Perhaps a time will come when men such as this are denied the key in the first place, or when the key no longer finds any box to open. One doubts it, though we count on it happening every day of our lives.

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