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Essay'd 2 // 30 Detroit Artists

Mel Rosas essay by Matthew Piper | The Wayne State University Press | August, 2017


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.

Matthew Piper, August 2016

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About Essay’d

Essay’d is an art writing, curatorial, and educational project based in Detroit. We also pursue various research, advocacy, and services activities.

We began as an online writing project in Dec 2014 publishing short, illustrated essays about Detroit artists. After each ten artists we had an exhibition of their work. Early on, Wayne State University Press began publishing each year’s worth of (thirty) illustrated essays in a book form.

In 2017 we took on the art programming at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall and initiated the Art@TheMax program. This has included a number of highly memorable exhibitions, installations, and events, and has resulted in the work of Essay’d artists being seen by hundreds of thousands of the DSO’s patrons.

In Sept 2016, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit asked us to put on a writing workshop in conjunction with an exhibition by Sanford Biggers. Two of the participants from this workshop went on to write for Essay’d. Subsequently we have partnered with various organizations to put on several more writing/publishing workshops. In total over 30 people have written for the Essay’d project, many of whom have taken the workshops.

Since the spring of 2018 we have run a series of “Questions of Curating” workshops, often in collaboration with MOCAD. In these intensive, highly collaborative workshops participants apply curatorial principles to develop their own projects. The results have been quite spectacular with each cohort going on to produce significant projects. You can read what the participant say about the workshops here.

Through our work, we are committed to the transition of art writing and curating in Detroit from low-performing (and often unpaid) activities to high-performing (and paid) activities.

In 2020 we launched a research and advocacy project to work towards (i) art institutions that are lean, inclusive, and flexible, (ii) a dynamic and equitable art ecosystem, and (iii) a bigger art economy for cultural producers in Detroit.

Through slowly building the Essay’d project, we’ve developed an unprecedented community of artists, writers, curators, venues, art professionals, and general art appreciators. If you have any comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to contact: steve (at) or matthew (at)