Born Des Moines, IA, 1950 / BFA, Drake University, Des Moines, IA; MFA, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, PA / Lives in Royal Oak, MI
With their luscious surfaces, painstakingly lifelike textures, and subtly surreal depictions of almost-possible places, the oil paintings of Mel Rosas invite and reward both close attention and long-view contemplation. Rosas, an influential professor of painting at Wayne State University, is one of those painters who draws knowingly from the deep well of art history (Vermeer, Hopper, and Magritte are three signal antecedents), as well as an idiosyncratic assortment of wider cultural influences. The expansive body of work that has obsessed him for more than 30 years is also an object lesson in the use of art as a tool to explore, expand, and communicate the self. Rosas’s paintings are portals that offer the artist passage into his Latin American ancestry, and the viewer into a lush and evocative dream world.
The portal, in fact, is one of Rosas’s dominant motifs, puncturing again and again the richly textured walls that tend to fill his compositions. In a typical painting, such a facade — invariably worn with age, often stained, scored, graffitied, but nonetheless alive with color — is depicted as if viewed from the street in front of it. Beyond it, glimpsed through various openings, are either voids (as in El regreso, 2001) or, more commonly, fragmented scenes of sublime natural beauty: oceans, mountains, forests, and vast skies — see Despues de la lluvia, 2004 and Jabon del amor, 2005. The portals are often the first clues that the meticulous realism of Rosas’s scenarios belies their truly surreal nature. Consider La patria (2013), in which the improbable opening (at once a doorway and a window) seems to have been carefully excised from the vibrant cerulean wall. From there, notice the shadow of a ladder, cast, impossibly, by a post. It is only gradually that a fundamental truth about the work becomes clear: this is not a depiction of reality. These walls are not the walls of buildings. They’re just…walls.
In speaking about his practice, Rosas mentions his concern with “beingness,” “being present,” and “altered states,” and with their typical (though not complete) absence of figures, his enigmatic scenes do invite a psychospiritual reading. In most of the works mentioned above, the viewer is on one side, the void or the immense impersonality of nature is on the other, and between them is a wall: a man-made surface, time-worn and marked by cultural signifiers, that seems more than it is. The viewer (the subject, in this read) can seemingly access transcendence, but only incompletely (through the portals), as long as the wall (personality, the ego) stands.
Rosas’s paintings — which he thinks of as “fictions” — are each the culmination of a lengthy process of travel, observation, documentation, and imaginative recontextualization. Their imagery is collaged from photographs the artist makes on regular research trips to Latin America, solo excursions during which he roams, eavesdrops, takes copious notes and pictures, and ultimately enters an “almost transcendental state.” While the keen observational quality of his work speaks to his position as an outsider in these cultures, Rosas, whose mother was American and whose father was from Panama, says that his practice is also a way of coming to terms with his Latino heritage, which, as a child and young man, he attempted to downplay, even hide, in order to blend in in mostly-white Des Moines.
Today, his work is inextricably linked with Latin America, where Rosas encounters communities that embrace the supernatural (consider the hypnotic mysticism of Clairvoyance, 2005), and “almost surreal” experiences that find a natural home in his paintings. (The panther trotting past the canopied portal in 2015’s Day of the Panther, for instance, originated in a real-life moment in Panama, when a groggy Rosas stopped his car after a long drive and watched, amazed, as a panther crossed in front of him.) Rosas sometimes inserts himself into these scenes, either overtly, as in Searching For the Romantic (2006) — in which the bifurcated figure, striding past a suspended sea, is a self-portrait — or more subtly, as in any number of works featuring a two-digit street number, which mirrors the artist’s age during the period he made the painting.
Perhaps the most fundamental link between Rosas and his father’s small-town Latino culture is a certain sympathy of texture. Look, for instance, at La naturaleza muerta (2012), with its astonishing reproduction in oil of the intricate surface of an aging fruit stand. This is the kind of detail that Rosas is drawn to in Latin America, and that he masterfully recreates in service of his fantastic vision.