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Posted by on August 5, 2009

The Art World's New Kid on the Block

Theo Rosenblum's paintings show an unpretentious love of humor, food, and pungent metaphor

The Art World's New Kid on the Block
Photo: Austin Irving

Written by Gideon Evans on August 5, 2009 for Aleim Magazine

“Did you hear about Sludgy the Whale?” artist Theo Rosenblum, a hip, bespectacled, twenty-five year old, asked during my visit to his Brooklyn, New York, studio recently. He went on to explain that “Sludgy” was a nearly dead whale that was found in the borough’s pollution-laden Gowanus Canal. I admitted I hadn’t heard of Sludgy but remembered consuming as a kid “Fudgy the Whale,” a popular Carvel Ice Cream cake. This was the first, but certainly not the last, time our conversation would veer toward the subjects of death and food—much of Rosenblum’s art is fixated on these two themes. Take, for instance, Rosenblum’s sculpture “Cool Whip Ghost.” Crafted out of resin and a found Cool Whip container, this piece references, as Rosenblum puts it, “the snake-coming-out-of-a-can-of-peanuts” practical joke. Only in this case, a large, mushy-faced white ghost with plastic strawberry eyes shoots straight out of a container of artificial whipped topping. One wonders which is more frightening, the ghost or the prospect of ingesting whatever mysterious compounds and chemicals make Cool Whip taste so delicious.

Rosenblum’s resin sculpture, “A Pig Meets Its Potential,” shows the back half of a life-sized pig torso, but there is no head on this animal—it has transformed magically into a large hunk of ham. Unlike the grotesque, foreboding, rotting sides of meat painted by Francis Bacon or Chaim Soutine, Rosenblum’s pork sculpture is fun-spirited. He comes to his art with no political or gastronomical agenda. “I’m a big carnivore,” the life-long New Yorker and Cooper Union alumnus proclaimed proudly, extolling the joys of growing up in lower Manhattan near Gray’s Papaya, which serves one of America’s best-tasting hotdogs. Asked if his art was meant to show that the way we choose the food we eat is crazy, Rosenblum hedged his bet, saying, “I’m more interested in it than I am pro or con. I eat potato chips like everyone else.”

Rosenblum’s “definitely interested in the relationship between animals and food and the natural and the artificial, the packaged and the living.” I could see this theme everywhere in his studio; his inspiration for one painting was that he “had an apple that was sitting in a vegetable bin with all these onions, and it went through a transformation where it took on the taste of onion.” The painting shows a somewhat realistic apple almost floating in space in the foreground with a flat background of cascading pink and off-white odd-shaped rings. “I started to think about Apple Jacks and Funions. They’re almost the same in texture; both rings, extruded whatever. The difference is just the flavor. Otherwise they’re almost interchangeable.”

Rosenblum grew up in Manhattan; his mother, Jane Kaplowitz, is a painter, and hisfather, Robert Rosenblum, was a legendary curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum and a Professor at New York University. I asked if his parents would have been upset if he wanted to do something other than art. He said his mother actually wasn’t thrilled with his choice of career, until she saw how serious he was. His art is very different from his mother’s works on paper, but being exposed as a kid to “high art and comic books” definitely shaped his own works. Despite his background, he said there wasn’t always art talk around the dinner table. “There was some. If my parents had friends for dinner they were artists or art historians. But between my mom, my sister, and my father, it was usual family stuff.

“Maybe somewhere in high school I started having an appreciation for my father as a giant vault of art historical knowledge…if I liked a piece of work at a gallery I could go, ’hey Dad, what about this guy?’ and he’d [say], ’of course I know him…’ that was an unbelievable asset.”

As we continued to tour the many works around the cluttered studio, the themes grew darker. Paintings that recall Hieronymous Bosch’s landscapes of hell, cinematic sculptures of bright green zombie arms protruding from the earth holding energy drinks and cell phones that would make George Romero proud, and a resin sculpture of a headstone on which is inscribed the words “The End.” Rosenblum’s love of movies, specifically horror flicks, contribute to these themes. But his father’s recent, lengthy, losing battle with cancer coupled with the death of a close friend put him in a gloomy mood: “(Death) was definitely on my mind.” The headstone, which also shows a vulture with two mice grasped in its beak and a mound of worm-infested dirt, was his way of coping with the question, “What’s it all about, what does it add up to? Just a final thing.” Still, even Rosenblum’s dark pieces are playful and cartoony; the maggots at the foot of his sculpted grave are a jaunty pink color. “Maybe I was trying to comfort myself….parts of existence are completely horrible and horrifying. But at the same time, to be alive is pretty ridiculous and funny. And it’s about that kind of basic dichotomy.”

Rosenblum’s paintings and sculptures have appeared in group shows from New York to California to Saskatchewan and he plans to continue to create exciting and unpredictable works in the future. One unfinished piece was influenced by the fact that after he stepped in the same piece of dog shit twice, his girlfriend, also an artist, called him a “shit magnet.” In the center of the studio, he has constructed a giant U-shaped magnet on which to pile novelty dog shit of many shapes and sizes.