February 27, 2024


masterpiece of human

Daniel Culpan on Rachel Rose


Capitalism profits from the very things it takes away from us. As Rachel Rose’s “Enclosure” suggested, our present climate crisis has been a long time coming. Interweaving film, sculpture, photography, and painting, the show took its name from the process of privatization of England’s common land from the twelfth century onward. The works reflected on the tangled history of property ownership and ecological decline, and on art’s own role in both the mystification of the natural world and its bourgeois consumption.

The 2019 high-definition video that lent the exhibition its title is styled, at first glance, as a kind of historical drama in the Merchant Ivory tradition, all period dress and golden afternoon light; English roses in bonnets speaking with crisp, clipped vowels. But as the story unfolds, it foregrounds the show’s concerns: the dawning of a dog-eat-dog world of self-interest and hucksterism. We’re introduced to a band of professional con artists, dubbed the Famlee, who trick people into selling the deeds to their farmland. This somewhat heavy-handed parable of greed and profiteering, underlined by flashes of violence, also hints at more menacing processes. The camera cuts away to inky sublunary scenes: time-lapse images of plants and mushrooms growing in darkness, a blackened sun throbbing with disquiet.

The paintings in Rose’s “Colores” series, 2021–, present altered reproductions of landscapes by renowned figures such as John Constable and Joseph Wright of Derby. The originals were made during a period, from 1750 to 1860, when enclosures increased. This was the dawn of the industrial age; nature was being transformed from a place of mystery to an object of commerce, carved up into capital. In Colore (1810), 2022, a quiet pastoral scene by James Ward—livestock grazing in the English countryside—is polluted by an iridescent sheen. At the canvas’s left-hand edge, murky greens curdle like something artificial and toxic. Colore (1820), 2022, offers a literal—if almost unrecognizable—gloss on Constable’s Dedham Lock and Mill, 1820, the verdant stillness of the original now speckled with metallic pigment. The painting’s streaked surface is opaque and murky with debris, as if retrofitting the contaminating by-products of all this land grabbing back to the point at which it all began. Rose suggests a narrative—of civilization reaping what we’ve long sown—by reading backward into the past, tilting it into a different light. Colore (1845), 2022, turns a rendering of London’s sprawling Hampstead by Francis Danby into an enigmatic palimpsest. Again, the sun is a black hole ominously blotting the sky, while an overlay of velvety dark green and inky blue depicts an oil-slick-like disaster.

The sculpture series “Loops,” 2021–, shows the evolution of natural materials into objects of commerce and construction. In Burl Egg 2, 2021, the gleaming wood, whose irregular grain makes it a target for poachers, is partly encased by a layer of blown glass that looks liquid. Displayed on a circular mirror, it invites us to reflect on our own desire for luxury ornaments crafted from finite resources. In Loop (4.6 billion BC), 2022, a lump of aragonite and a blob of silver glass both look so stylized as to be almost synthetic. The piece collapses the birth of Earth itself into a more uncertain present—and hearkens toward an increasingly unsustainable future.


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