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Portals and Palimpsests:
The Enigmatic Paintings of Mel Rosas

Essay by Molly S. Hutton | Gettysburg College | August, 2007

Mel Rosas's paintings are mysterious meditations on facades, curious and lonely streetscapes richly saturated in color, ambiguous, ostensibly Latin American places where, one feels, something out of the ordinary could happen, where the strange could take place without comment. Here are settings where the extraordinary has become the norm, and curious events are registered by no one in particular. Sometimes tiny (the size of a standard snapshot) and other times quite large (almost life-sized), Rosas's paintings are perhaps best described as images of dreamlike scenes, cryptic and off-kilter yet incredibly real at the same time. Straddling the aesthetic boundary between photo-realism (but with a surface that acknowledges the presence of paint rather than concealing it) and magical realism, the paintings constitute for the viewer portals into visual realms that are both understandable and enigmatic.

Most of Rosas's paintings employ a unique compositional structure: the majority of the picture plane is taken up by an image of the exterior wall of a building, stretching horizontally across the length of the panel or canvas. These lusciously painted stucco walls are both material and meaningful. Built up of numerous layers of pigment in order to approximate the appearance of the actual surface depicted, they are literally the walls of buildings, brightly painted in colors reminiscent of the architectural palettes of many Caribbean and Latin American communities. They are also, in Rosas's hands, metaphorical canvases containing a wealth of semantic connotations. Partially obscured and sometimes indistinct, Spanish words and phrases accompany simple (almost iconic) figures and images applied, as in a mural, directly upon the building surfaces. Painted more than one time-palimpsests of word and image-Rosas's walls are like visual games for the viewer to decode, pictograms or Rebuslike puzzles whose interpretive solutions appear just out of reach. The embellished walls also indicate the existence of human beings: like the frescos of Pompeii, they offer evidence that people were once here, although Rosas has removed most of the living inhabitants from his perplexing scenes. The curious signs and figures on the walls entice the viewer into indeterminate spaces whose thresholds are obfuscated or, alternately, are open entranceways through which one glimpses elements of tranquil landscapes and seascapes.

One of the interesting things about Rosas's works is that they operate on both an autobiographical level and on a more open-ended intellectual one. The son of an American mother and a Panamanian father, Rosas has remarked that his paintings “constitute a long-standing search for the Latino side of my heritage.” This fact makes it very easy to read a work such as Entre dos mundos (Between Two Worlds, 2006) as a narrative of the artist's quest to come to terms with his mixed background. A man in a white suit and Panama hat (a surrogate for the artist, or perhaps for his father), his back to the viewer, passes on foot a building on a street corner, heading in the direction of a door marked above with the address number 56, and into which a painted map of Panama seems to disappear. Spanish language signs above the Panama map indicate STOP and ONE WAY, pointing in the opposite direction from the way the man walks. On the other side of the building appears a map of the state of Iowa. The man's direction and stride suggest that he has come around the corner from the Iowa side and is about to cross the Panama side of the building (and into the darkened doorway?), finding himself both geographically and psychically “between two worlds.” Rosas commonly uses the street numbers of buildings to refer to his own age at the time a particular painting was made-his own system of inscribing himself directly into the work of art. Indeed, if the viewer didn't possess this bit of biographical data about the artist, these visual codes would be unreadable, their meanings undecipherable. Yet even with this knowledge, one still has the impression that the private significance of the scene is somehow incomplete or not fully accessible to others.

Las mujeres (2006) utilizes the innovative street-corner perspective of Entre dos mundos, and hence might relate thematically to it. Here, the father becomes the mother who is similarly caught between two stereotypically gendered classifications—this time that of the virgin and the whore. These are the two women of the title, as illustrated in the images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on one side of the building and an alluring female nude beckoning from within a glass of red wine on the opposite side. Located in the same place compositionally as the man in the white suit from Entre dos mundos, a conservatively dressed woman heads away from the Virgin in the direction of the nude woman, beyond which is another darkened doorway marked 56. Whether or not she intends to enter is unknown, but the direction of her path is clear enough.

More mysterious, perhaps, than Rosas's works that include people (although the man in the white suit appears in other Rosas paintings that are not so blatantly autobiographical, making the figure more ambiguous than my reading above might suggest), are his paintings where living people are replaced by those representatives of human beings and animals that appear only on the walls themselves. In Ghost Boat (2006), for instance, the viewer is located on a street looking at a stuccoed facade into which is built a wide doorway opening out onto a bluegreen sea. What is striking about the view through the building is that the water appears to begin directly on the other side of the building-no beach or boardwalk to buffer the waves and keep the sea from spilling into the building and beyond. An empty canoe, the "ghost boat,” is pictured floating untethered on the water, or rather seems to hover above the water. Cryptic images and numbers appear on the golden building facade-on one side a figure of a skeletal Death holding his scythe and identified below by the words La Muerte and above by the number 14, and on the other side of the opening a figure of a man, sliced perfectly in half lengthwise by the edge of the painting. The bizarre perspective of the image through the doorway serves to flatten the painting as a whole, and the viewer becomes confused as to whether the seascape is real or just another painting on the side of the building. Such visual puzzles are Rosas's specialty, and they reward the engaged viewer by proving that art can (and should) be an exercise in thinking as well as an exercise in looking.