Creatures for the millenium. Print Magazine; 5/1/1996. by Carol Stevens
Jonathan Rosen enjoys wide demand for his bizarre imagery. Rosen was deeply influenced by medieval illustrations of grotesque
subjects, such as dismembered body parts, hybrid creatures and torture victims, and these images frequently appear in his
illustrations. He was trained as an apprentice to printmakers before working for independent magazine publishers. His clientele
has expanded to include comic book and book publishers, Rolling Stone magazine, and record producers. Spending time with Jonathon
Rosen encourages a tendency to believe in reincarnation. Not that he seems unfamiliar with late-20th-century ways of life.
He travels by subway from his Brooklyn studio to Manhattan, owns and operates a Canon personal copier, and accumulates frequent
flyer miles when he goes to visit his folks in California. But his visions seem to spring from a 12th-century sensibility,
and the creatures that crawl out of his pen are as bizarre as any in Dante's Inferno. There are ominous celestial wheels,
shears with fangs, reptilian vines, and serpents that turn into electric plugs. He has assembled a catalog of flesh in which
any subtle suggestion of carnal delight is subverted by amputation. Disembodied limbs are grappled together with tinker-toy
parts; female legs rotate in pinwheel formation; voluptuous torsos--Amazons, perhaps--lack one breast. These are creatures
for the millennium, creatures that the German poet Heinrich Heine might have had in mind when he wrote, "Wild dark times
are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts...."
One might expect the dire prophecy inherent in such an apocalyptic vision to be unpopular, but this is not the case. Rosen's
work appeals to both mainstream (Time, Discover, The New York Times) and edgy (Rolling Stone, MTV) clients; not only because
he tempers ghoulish imagery with humor, but also because he works in a style that gives his illustrations the semblance of
cosmic truth. The lines are simple but coarse; the surfaces layered and distressed. His figures emerge from the page like
glyphs brushed free of rubble at an archeological dig. For a generation whose faith in fact has been shattered by the slick
reality of special effects, Rosen's pictograms have the mythic bedrock verity of cave paintings. And then there's the millennium,
the hurtling toward 2000 that sometimes threatens derailment. Rosen likes to call himself a "beneficiary of breakdown."
"People can see that what I'm doing reflects the general anarchy of the social situation," he says.
Rosen's childhood appears to have been quite normal. He grew up in Silver
Lake, just east of East Hollywood, and spent an inordinate amount of time et Junior Art Center, a place that was then "lavishly
funded, and insanely well equipped" with all the necessities for studying painting, photography, filmmaking, printmaking,
sculpture, and dance. After graduating from an experimental high school, he lacked the patience for a disciplined program
of higher study, and chose to browse among Los Angeles's state universities, city colleges, and trade schools creating his
own curriculum. Working as a printmaker to help pay the bills, he studied intaglio, lithography, relief printing, and woodcuts,
but spent an equal amount of time investigating/he possibilities of electronic music and sound collage. "I was doing the same
things with music that I do with pictures," he explains, "processing sound, using sound as collage bits." He also invented
the process musical saw or electric saw--a common saw that has been digitally delayed and harmonized. That Rosen should choose
to extend a utilitarian folk instrument with apparently inapposite technology is perfectly in keeping with his artistic impulse
to extend bodies with machines. He attributes this obsession to an early sighting of someone wearing a Walkman. "It was kind
of a shock to see someone with mechanical stuff strapped to his body," Rosen recalls. "It triggered a whole progression of
imagining machine devices augmenting the body." He also credits the catalytic effect of a book about Victorian technology
and a newspaper clipping of a man in night-fishing goggles. Rosen's muse isn't always so sedate. There are few things that
delight him more than the detailed wax anatomical models in use from the 17th century onward for medical study. A man's head
and neck, for example, purposefully flayed, the intricate network of nerves and muscles laid bare to scrutiny, glistening
with the raw intimacy of revelation, of secrets uncovered and at the same time intensified. For what layman can make sense
of this delicate network?
Eager to substantiate other sources of inspiration, Rosen shows me
some of his favorite books: The Gothic Grotesque and Fantastic; Popular and Profane Art of the Middle Ages; Alchemy, the Golden
Game. "I'm thoroughly obsessed by Gothic surrealism--late medieval and early Renaissance art," he says. "Bosch and Breughel
were really just the culmination of a whole history of pictorial symbolism stretching back to antiquity. I like it because
the artists were open to the irrational and unconscious." Indeed, Rosen uses the unconscious, both his own and that of the
unsuspecting viewer, as a kind of collaborator in his work. "I try to create work where I'm an active participant in a Rorschach
test," he says. "I use the pieces that I do as something to project my own unconscious onto and let the piece tell me what
it wants to be." He cites as an example the portrait of a man trailing various tubular innards instead of a neck (Fig. 18).
A winged female nude who appears to be siphoning something from the man's brain protrudes from a gash in his forehead. "I
began doing a lot of washes in a kind of yellowish amber," he explains, "and the stuff started coming out, and I just pulled
it out. It was like a puddle I was projecting something onto." Likewise, he enjoys having viewers project onto his images
their own personal interpretations. The message in these illustrations for the Information Age is up for grabs. "If people
come away with a meaning that's different from the original intent, I couldn't be more thrilled," he says, "because that's
the way the pictures are made."
This relaxed attitude toward content Iconsclous' both his sometimes
results in an innovative approach to story-telling. Having provided conventional comics for his work first two issues of an
off-beat publication called Snake Eyes, Rosen decided with the third issue to "impose a narrative on a series of pictures
that seemed to have a story" (Fig. 6). Luckily, the reader is led through the text accompanying this visual schizophrenia
with numbered caption blocks that function more like sound bites than story-telling. Without them, it's not clear that the
progression would be obvious. Reading the copy is like listening to the raving of a street person: "HEDONISTIC IS THE SACRED
ANTENNA. Clouds envelop the land like the walls of a placenta." Or, "SHADOW FIGURES OF GOD'S ENTOURAGE. Temptation is not
the snake of the tree of knowledge but IS the tongue of the 4 faced DEMON of ADDICTIVE materials and SUBSTANCES." Or, "Zealot
from EROTIC JUSTICE. Revenge killing for Cheating on SLEEP." Rosen's capacity for loony free association, however, doesn't
prevent him from producing images that do what his clients ask. "The goal for a commercial artist is to make a specific statement,"
he says, "to produce as a kind of lure an interpretation that reflects the idea of the article to be illustrated. Part of
my job is to agitate people." For Gail Anderson, deputy art director at Rolling Stone, Rosen's appeal lies in his bizarre
perspective. "But at the same time," she says, "we can ask him to do a portrait. The bizarre quality is still apparent, but
it feels right." In fulfilling his clients' requests, Rosen observes two self-imposed rules: "As far as possible, I make no
compromises," he says, "and I try to destroy cliches." He cites as an example an image of praying hands tainted by worms that
was used to illustrate a piece on AIDS (Fig. 1). "I read that one of the pictures in Jesse Helms's house was Durer's Praying
Hands,'" he explains, "and I think that's why I made this image."
While Rosen frequently produces art specifically for assignments, "Praying Hands (with worms)" was a personal piece
that he recycled. Perhaps because his background is in printmaking, and it was never his goal to be an illustrator, he makes
virtually no distinction between his commercial and personal work. Though he had done one or two illustrations for L.A. Weekly
and the L.A. Reader before he moved east in 1985, he came to New York with the idea of breaking into the fine art market.
Finding it saturated, he turned to illustration and discovered a profession in which he has been encouraged to bring his own
personal style and imagery to his work. "I can either draw from my own library and incorporate the images into assignments
or I can take things that were assignments and incorporate them into my personal work," he says. "There's a lot
of migration back and forth." This cross-pollination is helped along by an artistic process that reduces all of Rosen's
images to the common denominator of found materials. He may start with a simple pencil or pen-and-ink drawing on tracing paper,
but he is not truly comfortable with it until he has manipulated it to various degrees in his copier, the mechanical device,
it seems, that augments his body. "I photocopy on vellum, pile drawings on top of one another, sandwich five or six generations
of revisions that I can reach back into like sedimentary layers," he explains. "I'm constantly working with multiple
generations of the same image, pushing pieces around, treating it like a sculpture that I can reach around. It's very plastic."
Adamant in his dislike of drawing with a computer, which he describes as the "equivalent of drawing with the kind of
remote control arms people use to handle radioactive material," Rosen nevertheless relies on the copier machine to "cook"
his images, to adjust contrast, distort shapes and sizes, to approximate what he imagines are the capabilities of Photoshop
and Illustrator. "Compared to the computer, the copier seems more like an analog device," he says. "It seems
to read things in an organic way, and then it accelerates the decay of an image much like a woodcut decays when it's printed
hundreds of times."
Decay appeals. Rosen's studio is on the second floor of an old warehouse on the edge of Brooklyn's Park Slope. There are provocative
stains on the wood floor; a scantily clad Barbie doll hangs at an odd angle on pillar support in the middle of the room, her
legs splayed by an aluminum hook. But Rosen likes to show visitors the brick wall outside where one can barely make out the
words "T. C. Raine Co./Sheet Metal Stamping/Ice Cream Cans/Bakers Confection Tins," weather-beaten, as are some
of his drawings, almost to illegibility. Candid in assessing the current popularity of his purposefully aged and distressed
art, Rosen says, "Familiarity has opened doors to art directors who probably even three years ago wouldn't have got near
anything I do." Indeed, reminiscing about the first commercial assignment that came his way after his move east, he describes
a drawing for The New York Times Op-Ed page illustrating the terminal illness of someone named, coincidentally, Rosen. "When
I saw the published version," he recalls, "they had given it a headline I hadn't known about when I did the job,
Mr. Rosen's Slow Painful Death.' l had a feeling that it was setting the tone for my New York career." Steve Byram, then
an art director at CBS Records, remembers that Rosen's work at that time was still considered a little eccentric. "But
the way I look at the record business it should be doing stuff that's slightly ahead of its time, slightly irreverent. He
seemed to fit in with that whole mentality, so I was always putting him up for stuff, and the marketing people were always
saying it was too bizarre." Ten years later, bizarre has become more acceptable. Using pictures that started out as comps
for album covers, Rosen is putting together his own book to be published this fall by J.P. Faur in Paris. The working title
is Psychic Transplant of Neural Topiary, and Rosen regards it as truly interactive. "There are lots of fold-outs,"
he explains, "and when you open up the left and right side of the gatefold, the pictures become part of another long
strip. The panel on the right gate is the first panel of the strip when you turn the page. So the images have to work in three
or four different ways." He has worked with film artist Lewis Klahr on a couple of animation projects, creating for one
of these a paper-doll character whose limbs could be photocopied in multiples and reconfigured in any required pose. This
project led to Rosen's first collaboration on a CD-ROM, a visual trip for the Residents called "Bad Day on the Midway"
that exposes his delight in the macabre. "It's like a carnival midway," he explains, "and I did the interior
of one of the rides--ten little vignettes in niches in the wall; it's called Torture's Top Ten."' Rosen designed the
scenes, many of which involve medical tortures, enjoying what appears to have been a rare opportunity to combine his interests
in medieval brutality and anatomical dissection. Asked how his collaboration with the animator Jim Ludtke was accomplished,
he answers with the nonchalance of a man at home with mayhem: "I worked with him the same way I worked with Klahr,"
he says; "I supplied the body parts."
COPYRIGHT 1996 RC Publications, Inc.