Shaman of the art world

John Rosa’s vivid paintings and beautiful sculpture reflect the strangeness of our cultural landscape

“Nuclear Family” by John Rosa.

“Nuclear Family” by John Rosa.

There are only a few who have escaped the symbolic holocaust in John Rosa’s haunting, expressionistic “Survivors,” only a few who have managed to row away from a burning building in the dead of night. Holding a lantern that casts a ghostly glow on the midnight blue sea, the survivors look for living bodies in the water below. A single living hand stretches out of the water, but the hand is so close to the boat that the survivors don’t see it.

Rosa says that these survivors, crowded onto the tiny boat, represent all the people “of all the cultures of all the world.”

“But it was a small boat,” Rosa says. “So I could only paint a few of them.”

“Survivors” is one of the works in Rosa’s collection of sculpture and cubist and expressionist painting now on display at New Medium Art Gallery. He painted the piece as a response to the World Trade Center destruction, but instead of painting planes and tall buildings, Rosa created a more allegorical landscape to portray, in a larger sense, the horrors faced by humankind. He mentions the German artist Max Beckmann, an expressionist painter who fled Nazi Germany in 1937 and painted nightmarish scenes of people in boats, scenes that prefigured the atrocities of World War II.

“I think that artists kind of pick up on psychic energies around the world. I think artists are tuned into it—it’s kind of like being a radio. It’s shamanistic.”

Rosa’s own mysterious sense of artistic connectedness perhaps grew out of his travels. While he has returned to his childhood hometown of Reno to live as a self-described recluse—the New Medium exhibit is his first in years—Rosa’s younger years were hardly solitary. During the ‘70s, he hitchhiked many times from South Dakota, where he attended college, to New York, where he slept in Central Park during the day and sold paintings on street corners and lingered in cafes at night. He made $7,000 one summer.

“I was doing these crazy works with these captions. Instead of words, I used symbols,” he says, explaining that he’d begun to doubt the efficacy of words. “Then I started writing poetry, and that got me back into words.”

Rosa lived in a park in Santa Fe, N.M., one summer in the 1980s, sleeping under the canvas of the giant painting he was working on.

“I met all kinds of people," he says. "[Meeting people] is what my art is about, the stories of people who try to convert you—or pervert you. We’re just a reflection of the people around us."