COCA

On Edo Rosenblith's "Let Me Help You Make a Mural" (2018)

 

In 2013 I published a book of Edo Rosenblith’s drawings called Pink. The book debuted alongside a solo exhibition of the same title at fort gondo compound for the arts, for which I wrote this statement:

Pink is a chronicle of a daily art practice written in graphic form. Comprised of several hundred sketchbook drawings created over the past two years, as well as a series of gouache paintings and photogravure prints, the exhibit charts the construction of a personal cosmology by the simplest and most immediate of art-making tools: drawing. A fascination with ugliness, the grotesque and dark social satire informs these pieces, whose focus recurrently turns to the human face: wide-eyed, warped and awash in viscous tears. This compulsive point of study suggests a psychologically deep tradition – from the totemic mo’ai of Easter Island and the eviscerating gaze of portraits by fellow Missourian James Edward Deeds (a.k.a. the “Electric Pencil”), to painterly influences such as Philip Guston and Dana Schutz. Throughout Rosenblith’s work, the color pink prevails – not as the precious, saccharine hue as it’s now popularly known, but as a color turned sour and raw, vulnerable and nauseously unsettling. It’s Sienese red perverted for a modern-day Renaissance, through which the observable world is translated by the unhindered id-driven mind.

Reading this now – in 2018, on the occasion of the completion of Rosenblith’s new, immersive mural here at COCA – I feel as though it all still holds true. The primacy of drawing, yes. The construction of a personal cosmology, yes. The fascination with the grotesque as a vehicle for social satire, yes. The obsessive prevalence of eyes, yes. Philip Guston, always. And the unhindered translation of a kind of “id” or interior monologue, yes. 

But no pink. We are now in a black-and-white world. And here is where things have become more complicated in the intervening years.  

It does not seem coincidental that Rosenblith’s first large-scale black-and-white murals emerged the same year black teenager Mike Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, spurring city-wide then ultimately international protests and the formation of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Whether consciously or not, this galvanizing moment for St. Louis and our nation at large seemed to desaturate and essentialize Rosenblith’s palette to a sobering, tonal scale. That that revolt was swiftly followed by the revelation of a radical right-wing faction in the American populous that would gain startling prominence on the political stage implicitly solidified the artist’s formal choice as the definitive mode of the times. The ensuing immigrant crisis in tandem with escalating violence between Israel (where Rosenblith has dual citizenship) and Palestine all coalesced to form a cultural climate in critical need of immediate redressing, particularly by politically conscious artists. 

Murals have historically been a public genre of art-making wielded either propagandistically or anarchically according to prevailing institutional powers. A showcase for graphic rendering – i.e. drawing, at heart – murals stitch together community-sourced anecdotes to tell long-form narratives reflective of a given peoples’ collective vision of themselves. Call them social selfies. Rosenblith – a long-dedicated student of comics, graphic novels, print-making and zines – is a natural fit for the medium, which also favors process-based craft. Therefore, it seems inevitable that the compulsive draftsman and practiced daily chronicler would turn to this form as a means of navigating the recent onslaught of socio-political ruptures and rectifying the nefarious mischaracterizations some of these ruptures produced. 

I’d also add that murals are close kin to books of both the verbal and visual kind. Since publishing Pink, Rosenblith has turned to fine art book-making as frequently as he has mural-painting. Both forms imply a kind of “readership,” even when the content is drawn that aligns them less as interiorized expressive media than fundamentally dependent on collaboration with a reader or public. We are meant to open and page-through Rosenblith’s The Tower or What Dorothea Did – two book projects that were also collaborative and rendered in black-and-white – in the same way that we peruse a wall or physical space filled with his imagery. 

As the title attests, Let Me Help You Make a Mural makes its intentions abundantly clear. Rosenblith is here asking if he can help us unravel the last four years of world-altering events in a shared picture of personal and political phantasmagoria. Essentially democratic in spirit, the hyper-dense composition of this installation-scaled piece eradicates any hierarchical pretenses. Everything’s rendered on an equal, two-dimensional plane and in the same two tones. While one can discern certain moral allegories – the sin of ignorance, the crime of dehumanization, the tragedy of violence – the message isn’t sanctimonious. Rather, Rosenblith feverishly annotates this work with so many anxieties, confessions, micro-plots, mundane notes, random observations and unedited contributions by willing passers-by that high-mindedness about any writ-large topic is quickly jettisoned. All raised defenses are subdued at the door by an leveling spirit of revelry in human flaw. 

This mural – with its wounded hands covered in band-aids on which other band-aids are drawn – is like a large ensemble theatrical production. You have Picasso’s minotaur wrestling Géricault’s great shark while demons from 16th century Mexican murals trouble the fabled “Mexican Wall” and cosmic snakes bedevil the devils. Tony Kushner’s era-defining Angels in America comes to mind along with its subtitle: “a gay fantasia of national themes.” Both the mural and the play are haunted by the ghosts of our political past and have deep penchants for magical realism, end-times dread and a near-final dissolution into deus ex-machina that’s ultimately elided. Rosenblith is neither the kind of narrator who sums up the story’s meaning at its end nor burns it down impulsively. Rather, like Kushner, he’s a Talmudic commentator, footnoting the plot with vulnerable asides and gently leading it away from chaos toward a cathartic chorus of self-confessions – perhaps around a cleansing angel. 

Rosenblith’s work shares much in common with many AIDS-era artist-activists whose artifacts also straddled a conscious debt to “high art” that was translated through populist styles as a way to activate public engagement. Rosenblith’s murals, in my mind, fall in the tradition of someone like Keith Haring, whose own cosmology and graphic public works acted as visionary beacons for a minority community beset by illness, rising conservatism and state-sanctioned brutality. Haring’s political conditions – and Tony Kushner’s – are (unfortunately) not dissimilar from ours; they, too, were attempting to make sense of the apocalyptic intimations of a hate-stoked plague affecting not only the public sphere but their very bedrooms. 

And this point marks the key shift in Rosenblith’s work: while Pink was an attempt to piece together the artist’s profound personal losses and ruptures to his private world, his recent murals are an attempt to piece together the social story within which his own story lives. Symptomatic of trauma is a kind of fragmentation of memory, where specific and often mundane details become repetitively and thereby primarily associated with the impacting experience rather than the full “cinematic” perspective. This break-down in narrative structure is often therapeutically treated by having the person restore their account – piece it back together as a complete story.  So, here in Rosenblith’s mural we’re quite literally invited to paint the larger picture, potentially color it by number – incidentally, all therapeutic activities. And like Kushner’s version of Virgil – Prior Walter – Edo wants to guide you through the moral dilemmas of our moment, see if he can help you make sense of them, even if he’s a little addled himself. Because maybe if he can help you, you can help him. 

This essay was written for an informal catalogue for Edo Rosenblith's solo project Let Me Help You Make a Mural, which was on view June 9 - August 26, 2018 at COCA, St. Louis. 

Anyway Autobiography Is Easy Like It or Not Autobiography Is Easy for Any One And So This Is to Be Everybody’s Autobiography (2011)

 

It is not our eccentricities, pointedly marking our imagined singularity, that make us unique, but how we stake a claim on what is shared and relentlessly sharable. This is what Gertrude Stein coyly asserts in her recurrent account of herself and, consequently, everyone, in her 1937 book Everybody’s Autobiography – her “sequel” to the unexpectedly popular and complexly parroted (and non-autobiographical) account of her lover, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In both works, as in all of her poetry, the fabric of common life – food, objects, rooms – takes precedence over the altering life event or agonized utterance of an I. And, as food, objects and rooms are iterated in the circuitous and incantatory repetition that characterizes Stein’s writing, we see these familiar things anew, like a phrase made strange if said again and again, regardless of its content. In that repetition, an equilibrium is reached – a plateau on which any person can stand and feel the absolute strangeness of the fabled common lot, as both a figurative state of mind and real place to assume firm footing.

Like Stein, Robert Gober has focused in acute detail on the otherwise unexceptional stuff that populates and quietly dominates our daily lives. Sinks, drains, twin beds, cat litter – the rectangular slab of uncut butter – are recreated in hand-wrought detail, yielding objects that are at once ersatz ready-mades and exquisitely mundane art. Dwelling on a single form for several years, a sink, for example, is made to exist in every possible scale and variety – hanging fixtureless and upright, or angled, dramatically split, or halved and submerged, like a grave marker. In extracting this single, common object from the cacophony of nameless things, its significance swells, evoking its emblematic meaning, magnifying its unsettling formality, and transforming it both into a noun in a new, personal grammar and a fluidly poetic symbol.

That Gober would produce wallpaper, then, is no surprise, as wallpaper itself inhabits the same lowly status as other seemingly banal domestic accents and is, furthermore, characterized by repeated design motifs. The two images in Highway, depicting a two-lane road splitting a forest, create an insistent pattern of snap-shot familiarity much like the encapsulating flash of a vivid memory. Drawn in wavering, child-like lines, the imagery bears all the freight of childhood itself – overwhelmed by the unknowable, awestruck by what may soon come to be known as dull, and glassy-eyed in the face of the eerily portentous. The scene could go anywhere: the Great American Road trip, the tragic Noir get-away, the idyllic or Gothic road to the rural unknown.

Kerry James Marshall’s prints dedicate themselves to similarly common forms, objects and scenes, but as a way of redressing precisely what the dominant tradition has unconscionably excluded. That the history of art proliferates with portraits of persons of both modest and noble status is a kind of truth. Marshall sees the significance of revising this tradition as well as the conception of what is deemed “common” by creating portraits and scenes of black subjects; in doing so, he emphasizes the significant failure of the dominant strain of assumed reason. What has been shared has in fact not been shared in full; it is the very existence of a banality that includes a black identity that, in Marshall’s work, becomes radical.

But to see Marshall’s work as a purely political gesture is to stray from its full complexity and primary import. The experience of his portraits and vignettes speaks to the fundamental qualities of the art historical movements they quote – reflective of beauty, the human form, the tragic and the romantic. Their appeal is, essentially, a transcendent one – not bound by race or history – and in such bears a resemblance to Gober’s practice: they transmogrify the everyday and render traditional practices into ones of startling conceptual rigor.

The art of the everyday has not been a creative strain quickly admitted into institutional acceptance. Lumped into the Civil Rights movement and the flotsam of assorted mid-Century uprisings long preceding and following it, printmaking has been a medium closely associated with the distraught and quotidian, the news-bearing, and social unrest. At its heart is the ability to produce multiples – a quality reflective of Stein’s verse, Gober’s hand-made Americana, and Marshall’s historical reprisals. Multiples, like wallpaper patterns, have the ability to create ubiquity; what was once novel suddenly becomes a new norm. And as Marshall’s work attests, “normal” is never to be dismissed. This additional dimension of these artists’ practices – that is, their use of printmaking – adds a subtle texture to their work, an unspoken comment on their material identities and affinity with alternative histories.

“Cloudiness what is cloudiness, it is a lining, it is a roll, it is a melting.” Cloudiness can even-out an image, make it appear balanced. Breezy and almost glib, the peripheral roads, bundles of newspapers, bags of donuts, and carpeted living rooms unscroll as the backdrops to our grander narratives, all the while moving a strong hand in dictating our even grander perception of base-line experience. Perhaps with a finer trained eye – one schooled on patterns – the subtler marks can be seen in a given face, as if suddenly primed for a portrait, and certain invisibilities can be unmasked as the monstrous, deficient, or sublime truths that they are.

This was the exhibition essay for "Everybody's Autobiography: Robert Gober and Kerry James Marshall," SGC International Curated Exhibition at the Center for Creative Arts, St. Louis, March 17-April 24, 2011. The essay (and exhibition's) title is from Everybody’s Autobiography, 1937, by Gertrude Stein; the quote in last paragraph is from Tender Buttons, 1914, by Gertrude Stein.