‘Off the Wall’
Peter Shaffer once said, “If London is a watercolour, New York is an oil painting.” The playwright’s analogy seems only fitting for somewhere so entirely original, innovative, and home to some of the most exciting arts communities the industry has to offer, including multidisciplinary artist and writer Jo Rosenthal. Or, as she humorously describes herself, “An Oreo cookie wrapped in a house fire.”
Originally Florida-born, Rosenthal now resides in the heart of Chinatown while studying at Parsons University in Greenwich Village. She initially planned to study fashion business, but soon came to the conclusion that, even though a pathway into the fine arts may be a risk, it was where her true passion lay.
“My mom wasn’t too pleased, but my dad was excited because that was what he had wanted to do himself. Eventually they both realised that me making art was a wonderful way to express myself and work through my emotions,” she says. As a self-proclaimed romantic and sensitive soul, Rosenthal uses art as a tool to cope with the trials and tribulations of everyday life, one brush stroke at a time.
From paintings of the body, to break-up poetry, to nipples made of Modroc, there are few mediums the young artist is yet to experiment with. Rosenthal’s website, jorosenthal.com, also showcases multiple zines she has produced herself as well as those she has been featured in. Multidisciplinary by nature, pieces such as “To Drew”, a raw and vulnerable email to an ex-lover printed on silk, perfectly illustrates her pursuit of human emotional truth, through textiles, print, and prose.
In spite Rosenthal’s tender age of 22 (“and a half,” she’s quick to add), her work has been displayed in multiple galleries across the city. In February last year, she performed spoken word for Bookclub 10 at the Museum of Modern Art where she exposed her innermost intimate experiences in front of hundreds of tourists and art lovers alike.
Her modesty extends to her work, as she makes it very clear that the only validation she needs is from herself. “Making art for yourself is more important than success,” she says. “If you create things for yourself and are proud of them that’s more important than any gallery show or museum exhibition.” With self-acceptance being at the centre of her mind-set, fame and notoriety are not accolades she is in any hurry to obtain.
Although she will always be her sternest critic, a growing online following, including the likes of singer Blood Orange, AKA Dev Hynes, have shown continual support for her artistic endeavours. Armed with a charming wit, relatable woes, and obligatory hipster glasses, Rosenthal uses her online presence to capture hearts in their thousands. With her focus in keeping with themes such as feminism and liberation, activists and creatives have embraced her unconventional yet thought-provoking art.
“It’s okay to be emotional and intimate, [I want] to break down boundaries between artist and viewer,” she says, which she does most strikingly through her monologues, from heart-driven tales of relationships past to self-reflective diary entries. An extract from her piece “Performance B”, where she painted confessions about herself in her underwear, reads, “Don’t kiss me if you don’t mean it […] I’m too romantic, you have the wrong idea.” The wholly personal infrastructure of her work invites viewers into the depths of a mind that isn’t their own. It almost resembles an act of therapy; offloading emotional baggage and serving it up for the world to see. “For me, similar to the physical art that I make, I want my performances to be as honest as possible so I’ll do something along the lines of reading letters I wrote to people that I would never have the courage to actually say to their face.”
As well as the written word, Rosenthal uses classical means of paint and canvas in many of her projects. The key foundation to each piece, she says, are portraits. “I try to find different ways to create portraiture without using someone’s face but simply their essence.” Her conceptual approach isn’t dissimilar to that of her main influences, instillation artists Tracey Emin and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “They physically broke apart traditions in portraiture. I use it as a springboard to create portraits that do not conform to the figure to show who or what they depict.” In turn, with the freedom to explore every realm of abstract and symbolic art, her style has the ability to be as uncensored and unapologetic as she wishes. She has done this in the form of faceless portraits, pressed flowers, and many more.
As someone who bares all in the name of art, how public is too public? Where do the lines blur between privacy and exhibitionism? With Rosenthal’s career built around displaying the depths of her most treasured and heart-breaking memories, nothing is an overshare. “[I want to] see just how personal I can get with an audience by opening up as much as possible. Through oil paint, performance, and instillation I communicate my journey.” Her official artist’s statement reads. “I want [my audience] to laugh and cry and want more from their overall experience—and in the process, to figure out what being Jo means in the world.”
Living in a world where the term ‘starving artist’ is truer than ever, Rosenthal has seen the bigger picture of the importance of art, and why pursuing it as a career can be mentally rewarding, even if it may not always be economically. “Don’t let anyone bring you down if you are excited and passionate about what you are doing. Who cares if only one person sees it if you feel like you gave your work the justice it deserves?” With a philosophy where personal involvement outweighs income, it’s not surprising that Rosenthal has thrived in New York’s passionate, and competitive artistic landscape.
Now, it’s all well and good being effortlessly marvelous, like Rosenthal clearly is, but for those only just dipping their toes into the daunting pool of unstable salaries, living off ramen noodles, and bearing indelible acrylic paint stains, what is it really like taking the leap to become a professional artist? And in New York of all places? The key is, unsurprisingly, do it because you love it. “As long as I am proud. That’s way more important to me than ever becoming famous,” she says. “If you never try, you’ll never know.
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