Q+Art: Jewish Painter Rosabel Rosalind Dismantles Hierarchy Through Humor and Horror
In a darkened room, after the Assyrian general has glutted himself on enough wine, the beautiful Jewish widow saws through his neck with his own sword. The woman’s name is Judith, and she’s filled with rage.
Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi used herself as the model for her famous painting of Judith beheading Holofernes during his invasion of the Jewish city of Bethulia. The moody painting depicts one of art history’s most beloved scenes, and is an obvious influence on contemporary Jewish painter Rosabel Rosalind. In “Self Portrait” (below), the artist paints herself naked and strident, brandishing a sword over a beheaded male who licks her genitalia in a sign of submission.
Setting the stage with plenty of blasphemy, Rosabel Rosalind creates an apocalyptic universe informed by Jewish storytelling traditions, climate crisis, and absurdist conspiracy theories. Her cinematic paintings recontextualize the storied history of the Jewish people with “grotesque” caricatures that find humor and pulpy horror in contemporary anti-semitism. “Humor serves a survivalist role in my work,” she notes in her artist statement. “Through melodrama, irreverence and subliminal messaging, I dismantle patriarchal hierarchies of power and disarm the anthropocentric and white-supremacist ideologies that plague the planet’s most vulnerable.”
With her trademark tongue-in-cheek humor, Rosabel Rosalind comes to terms with the same rage Judith felt when she snuck into Holofernes’ tent in the dark night. “The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman,” said Judith after the slaying, a sentiment Rosabel Rosalind clearly relishes, even in the midst of an apocalypse. Refreshingly, her ominous scenes don’t occur in a vacuum; they’re the explicit result of human-caused climate change. The artist makes it clear, however, that this is one crisis the Western powers can’t—or won’t—save us from.
Luckily, we still have the pluck of artists like Rosabel Rosalind to guide us through dark times. Her paintings—populated with anthropomorphic carrots and loaves of bread—take aim at the cultural hierarchies destroying the very soul of our world. Here, she defangs her oppressors with humor and strength, ushering in an unexpected protagonist who just might save us from our worst impulses.
In Today’s Q+Art interview…
Rosabel Rosalind discusses her pulp magazine influences, cutting back on Instagram to preserve her mental health, and getting weird in the studio with Jewish Space Lasers.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Rosabel Rosalind: It's all about the range! Fiction, biographies, philosophy, poetry, graphic novels, essays—there should be no limit in genre. I like to revisit Letters to a Young Poet (Rilke) often. I love the poetry of Eileen Myles, so I read their work sometimes when I feel I have a hard time articulating a feeling creatively. I am not a huge theory nerd, but Eugene Thacker's essays have been fun to delve into when I'm in the mood. I think it's important to have exhibition catalogues and art books around, for easy-access inspiration. I have been obsessed with this collection of Frank R. Paul’s pulp magazine illustrations, I found this book about his work on some obscure used book site. I collect books almost like it's a form of journaling. You can see the scope of my changing interests based on the diversity of my library. I think everyone should have their own library-diary.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
RR: I source a lot of my imagery from biblical mythology, histories of oppression, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and my own memories growing up in LA. I reference a lot of stories, both historical and autobiographical, and imbue them with my own absurd fantasies. Recently I've been drawing a lot of compositional and formal inspiration from pulp magazine illustration, contemporary environmental photojournalism, and northern Renaissance paintings. I've been pondering the fraught relationship between biology and theology, and how science fiction and contemporary conspiracies contribute to the fact/fake news dichotomy—which for me creates a sort of alternate reality with lots of uncanny and fantastical potential.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
RR: I think Peter Saul and I would have a nice conversation over Thai food.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
RR: The Adobe Suite! Teach your artists practical skills!
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
RR: Writing applications, and stretching and priming canvases are notorious personal barriers to my productivity!
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
RR: My mornings are for leisure and my evenings are for work, and while I try my hardest to keep that separation I'm not very good at maintaining that balance during grad school. Having a studio outside my home has been helpful!
What does success mean to you as an artist?
RR: I'd just love to be able to support my family by making and selling my weird art.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
RR: I'm working on an ongoing polyptych in panorama form that imagines a future apocalypse, featuring lots of wildfires, Jewish Space Lasers, cats that look like Hitler, pink eye victims, LA traffic jams, raining bread, and clouds that resemble a hemorrhoid, just to name a fraction. I'm having a lot of fun unraveling this story with every panel. I haven't felt this unconfined and free to get freaky in a long time!
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
RR: I recently took instagram off my home screen and that has been a serious game changer—I can still find it in my apps but it's not as automatic. I've also been keeping my phone in another room when it's time to go to sleep, and when I wake up I do about five minutes of writing, reflecting on what I want to focus on and what I feel grateful for that day. And, always, therapy!
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
RR: It feels like the art world's power is derived from its distance from the general public. I really wish non-art folks felt comfortable engaging in art the same way they discuss and enjoy film, music, and literature. Art, I think, has become immensely intellectual, which can feel inaccessible to people. It's a real shame. I hope things can shift by continuing to address it, both through my artwork and in conversation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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