Perception or Intention: The Curious Works of Edward del Rosario

Contest of Champions II, 2007

Contest of Champions II, 2007

“An artist’s ‘art’ is just his consciousness, developed slowly and painstakingly with many mistakes en route.... Consciousness is not something that the painter’s audience can be given; it must be gained, as it is by the painter, from experience...”

“Without ethical consciousness, a painter is only a decorator.”

“Without ethical consciousness, the audience is only sensual, one of aesthetes.” – Robert Motherwell


An artist’s general audience is typically unreliable, inattentive and presumptuous as a whole; there are, of course, definitive exceptions to that rule. Now, imagine a contemporary art museum and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who have tried their luck at art interpretation. A wide-range of life experiences and inherent biases will impact each individual’s perception of the art she engages with. This variability, and ultimately this unreliability, of perception leave a single piece of art with dozens of interpretations, none of which may even coincide with the artist’s intention.

 When examining the works of Edward del Rosario, the new Arts Editor for Mouth, Andrea Nease, discovered the challenges of distinguishing the artist’s intention without the intrusion of her perceptions or underlying cultural outsets. After analyzing artist intent, del Rosario commented directly to her initial perceptions – transforming her observations to reflect his true intentions. 

Illustration for New York Times Magazine, June 29th 2008

Illustration for New York Times Magazine, June 29th 2008

Illustration for Le Monde, January 2014

Illustration for Le Monde, January 2014

Missouri born, artist Edward del Rosario received his BFA from University of Kansas and his MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. Now based in Brooklyn, he has work exhibited across the country; del Rosario currently teaches for Dartmouth’s Department of Studio Art. Del Rosario’s illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s and Le Monde.

Even when viewing his magazine illustrations (where his voice has been softened by the intentions of those who commissioned him), one will still recognize his consistent mark and his clearly articulated language that appears throughout all of his works. This language may be described as flat, reductivist in nature, and clean in its render of the figure.

The Collapse of Globalism for Harpers,  March 2004, watercolor on paper, 14″ x 10″, 2004

The Collapse of Globalism for Harpers,  March 2004, watercolor on paper, 14″ x 10″, 2004

Additionally, del Rosario’s mark remains discernable throughout each medium choice, transforming an individual language into a recognizable trademark. Each figure commands the viewer’s primary attention as a result of the background’s spatial simplicity. The air of cleanliness and modern minimalism creates a strong emphasis on the figure, whether there is one figure present or a dozen. 

Voyager I, oil on linen/panel 24″ x 24″ 2014

Voyager I, oil on linen/panel 24″ x 24″ 2014

Del Rosario’s paintings not made for commissioned publications are mentally arresting in their complexity. When observing paintings such as the one above, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to read into del Rosario’s practice, understanding what drives his work. The seeming disconnect between the figures in Voyager I, make it difficult for the viewer to pinpoint a sharp conceptual design.

The figures appear unrelated, but the painting’s composition contradicts this notion as the figures are clearly in active engagement with one another. Voyager I appears to focus on this contradiction—the incompatible figures share interactive relationships. Del Rosario’s work is not mere decoration—it requires the viewer’s active attention and ethical consciousness. 

Domicile I, oil on linen/panel 30″ x 30″ 2012

Domicile I, oil on linen/panel 30″ x 30″ 2012

His painting, Domicile I, does not ease the process of deciphering the artist’s intent either. Figures similarly rendered to the figures in Voyager I appear in chaos. Each figure seems to showcase a distinct personality. However, when viewed in unison, the figures appear as young playmates, like children, or at least adults acting as children. Again, the conceptual design seems to be driven by these figures’ relationships to one another and not by the space in which they exist.

 Del Rosario: "The relationships of the figures have primary importance but I would like the space and environment to also play a significant role. The work developed out of an interest in experimental theater and performance art and Iʼve often described my process as similar to creating scenes for a theatrical piece. As the artist/director, I ʻblockʼ out the performers on a minimalist stage. Although the staging is primarily driven by the interaction and relationship of the figures (or performers), the environment (or set) also plays a crucial role."

Year Four, graphite on paper 14″ x 18″ 2014 and Year IV, oil painting, 2013

Year Four, graphite on paper 14″ x 18″ 2014 and Year IV, oil painting, 2013

The more one explores del Rosario’s work, the more one will realize that these figures’ relationships are not as simple as the lines that define them. Their relationships seem to question the dynamics of power between peoples, and his color palette and his choice of spatial composition only reinforce these questions.

 Del Rosario: "I think these observations are accurate. I am interested in creating a visual unity within a narrative complexity. Finding a balance between the two can be challenging... some works achieve the balance better than others. Ideally I would like the formal elements (color and composition) to be as compelling and complex as the narrative."

 Both the drawing and the painting articulate that the two figures are diametrically opposed, though the equity of blending allows them to grow together. The blending of the two figures showcases del Rosario's versatility in medium whilst simultaneously defining the dynamic of their relationship. 

Despite recognizing their dynamic, one is still left with more questions than answers. Del Rosario’s audience doesn’t leave his work with a deeper understanding – it leaves his work with a deeper curiosity.

Del Rosario: "Good! My initial questions in making work began with curiosity and inquiry. I believe that works that continue to question and arouse curiosity are more valuable than works that provide ʻanswers.ʼ"

Adornos II, oil on linen/panel, 2011

Adornos II, oil on linen/panel, 2011

The following quote from Alexandra Horowitz speaks to the responsibility of the viewer when she is viewing del Rosario’s work, “Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”

Adornos II helps the viewer understand the conceptual dynamic between his figures. The figures themselves are metonymic for the demographics they represent. For example, the young boy does not represent a singular boy but rather, he represents young men as a collective. The dynamics aren’t between people; they’re between purposefully chosen groups of distinction, defined by culture, gender, even class.

 Del Rosario: "Rather than say ʻdefinedʼ I would say the characters are influenced by culture, gender, and class. And consequently influenced by other characters and the narrative itself."

The narrative-like quality and these oddly youthful figures push the viewer closer and closer to an understanding of intention over perception. Noting the complex nature of his work, del Rosario’s paintings should not be viewed singularly. Del Rosario’s conceptual roots are so deeply entwined in his work as a series one painting cannot possibly give the viewer all the information of his intended narrative.

 Del Rosario: "Most often I will work on a series of paintings. When I have a solo exhibition I will consider each painting to be part of a larger installation and not just a group of individual paintings. The narrative in a single painting will have a relationship with the paintings adjacent to it as well as to the entire installation. Although I would like each individual painting to have its own richness and presence, I believe that as an ʻenvironmentʼ the narrative increases in complexity and depth."

Through this necessity for a bigger picture, del Rosario forces the viewer to develop a timeline of discovery with his work where each painting serves to redress the viewer’s current (and most likely skewed) perception of the piece. Layer by layer of paint, and conceptual design, each drawing, illustration and painting reveals clearer intent than the previous. 

Mar Profundo, oil painting, 2011

Mar Profundo, oil painting, 2011

Mar Profundo resounds with greater psychological complexity than the preceding paintings because no longer are the figures’ relationships contained to a one-to-one ratio or a straight group dynamic. This piece in particular appears to speak to cultural influence, gender dynamics, animals as symbolism, and what might be labeled as the human condition at large.

Despite the complexity of del Rosario’s intentions as an artist, his work exhibits a language of expression that embodies both modern minimalism and, a youthful simplicity that captures the viewer’s attention without fail.

 Undoubtedly, there is more to del Rosario’s work, his paintings are deeper than any one of these simplistic interpretations. The only way to reach the depths of del Rosario’s meaning is to look past the surface. As Robert Motherwell notes, the viewer must gain experience of consciousness to be more than sensual aesthetes.