For over 25 years, Art Rosenbaum’s work has been largely propelled by Southern regional imagery. He is as attentive to the particularities of locale in his complex, large paintings as he has been in documenting the strains of American music as a celebrated folklorist, author, fiddler and banjo player. His canvases have been compared to American Scene paintings of the 1930s. Indeed, Thomas Hart Benton’s memory lurks in the swell and build of compositions and the dynamics of their contracting and expanding spaces as well as in the epic nature of his depictions. While paeans to place, Rosenbaum’s richly episodic compositions, with their uneasy disjunctures and willingness to tackle big themes, resist straightforward narrative interpretation.
In canvases such as Reenactment and Panama City, alluring, casually lounging couples figure prominently, holding forth the respite of sex and intimacy–and the possibility of love–amid the febrile activity that surrounds them. Gorgeously sprawled in mannerist poses, the couples in the foreground of Reenactment are contentedly oblivious to what could be an apparition: a black banjo player and straggly men costumed as Civil War soldiers. An oblique allegory of violence, this painting is also a disquisition on how history impinges on the present, or fails to.
Time, the heeding and recording of the present–before it passes–is central to Hurricane Fever, a 6-by-17-foot triptych brimming with incident and lavish display. Along with skateboarders and embracing lovers are images of musical performances being captured by figures wielding cameras, mikes, camcorders and recording boards. Shapes recur in a visionary, even hallucinatory, way (globes are transmogrified into an electric fan, and finally into a banjo). Rosenbaum is very good at his game, and technically brilliant passages reminiscent of monumental Baroque and 19th-century painting appear throughout. So, instead of gods or angels on high seen from below, the famous di sotto in su of the old masters, daredevil skateboarders soar weightlessly up into the air to do acrobatic turns against the sky. Worked over like a rich brocade, details also impart pleasures. Sultry, Delacroix-like turquoise skies and amber clouds crackle with a sunset’s reflected lights; the skewed patterns on a brightly colored wrinkled shirt are painted with as much conviction as the treads of a sneaker sole.
These are grand paintings of grand ambition, sometimes edgy and foreboding but loving riffs on and tributes to our country, nonetheless.