Edward del Rosario: Bread and Circuses

New York

Edward del Rosario: Aventuras I (triptych, 2009): Oil on linen. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery, New York.Edward del Rosario: Aventuras I (triptych, 2009): Oil on linen. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery, New York.

By Bill Clarke

Edward del Rosario: Bread and Circuses
Nancy Margolis Gallery
October 29 – December 5, 2009

The phrase “bread and circuses” derives from the Latin phrase panem et circenses, which in ancient times referred to small favours and inconsequential amusements that politicians doled out to curry favour with the populace. In more modern times, the phrase has been used to describe a society — namely our Western one — so distracted by the pursuit of self-gratification that its people have lost sight of such things as social responsibility.

Bread and Circuses was also the title of Edward del Rosario’s first solo exhibition at this gallery. The Brooklyn-based Rosario paints precise, colourful works on linen that suggest Indian miniatures or 17th Century Dutch genre painting. They also seem informed by children’s book illustration and comics, which puts his work in the same arena as artists like Marcel Dzama and Amy Cutler. His paintings are lovely to look at, but there is something darker at work beneath their glossy surfaces.

Edward del Rosario: Contenders IV (2009): Oil on linen. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery, New York.Edward del Rosario: Contenders IV (2009): Oil on linen. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery, New York.Upon entering the exhibition, viewers were greeted by a large work, Vanity Fair (all works 2009) that introduces viewers to his sprawling cast of characters — expressionless young people often outfitted in slightly retro but fanciful dress, such as a girl sporting an enormous cake-like hat and another in a ‘Playboy’ bunny costume, crisply uniformed schoolchildren, a boy in a skeleton bodysuit and another dressed as an old-timey magician, as well as tattooed strongmen and several figures sporting animal pelts. The rest of the paintings place these characters in a range of enigmatic, vaguely threatening and occasionally kinky scenarios. For example, in the first panel of the triptych Aventuras 1, couples stand in delicate boats, balancing themselves for fear of being tipped into the water by the tails of sea monsters emerging around them. The couples are dressed in elegant formal wear, except for one couple — the young man is naked and the woman’s head is encased in a fetish mask. The middle panel features a group of young party-goers cavorting around a white gazebo. One pair of party-goers is chained together by the ankles, while another pair appears to be fornicating. In the third panel, spiralling white lines issue forth from the figures’ mouths; rather than talking, these figures are simply blowing smoke. Elsewhere, the ‘circus’ part of the exhibition’s title was portrayed in paintings like Contenders IV, in which a group of school children pull a wagon on which an anthropomorphized bear and bull prepare to duke it out in a cage, and Vistas II, which depicts a young girl, bound by the wrists and ankles but standing upright, being lured into a white carnival tent; a fleeting glimpse of the supposedly naughty goings-on inside is supplied through a slit in the tent’s fabric.

Rosario states that his paintings portray “the aftermath of cultural clashes” and, indeed, they do seem to reflect contemporary North American society, in which ambiguity abounds. The figures in Rosario’s paintings are, like many young people today, testing the boundaries of what constitutes ‘right and wrong’ (or, in Rosario’s words, they are defining “their vices and virtues”) and renegotiating the rules of engagement with each other. Rosario’s figures are not babes-in-the-woods, however. Rather, they are instigators, experimenters and provocateurs. It is telling that Rosario places his figures against flat planes of colour rather than in identifiable settings (i.e., he could have easily set his figures in post-apocalyptic wastelands or sanitized futuristic cityscapes.) Despite all the doom and gloom forecast for the Earth’s younger generations, Rosario’s wide-open spaces and knowing naives suggest that the future isn’t set in stone; it is up-for-grabs.