Rosaire Appel, “Backtalk” (2023), laser print on acetate with acrylic backing, two panels, 32 1/2 x 11 inches each (all images courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)

Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly, and Xu Bing are widely celebrated for their explorations of asemic writing (writing with no semantic value), utilizing traditional materials and processes, such as ink on paper, oil painting, and woodblock prints. What these and many other creators of asemic works share is the use of the hand to make configurations that are linked to drawing and writing, but are not exactly either one. One extraordinary exception to this reliance on the hand is Rosaire Appel, who makes her work from digital files, which she prints on paper or clear acetate, sometimes on both sides. Subsequently, she will go back into these prints with ink and crayon, making each iteration unique. In addition to the sequential form of a comic strip, Appel has incorporated musical scores, as her interest is in structures that shape abstract elements, such as disparate visual languages and sounds. The result is a diverse body of work done largely in book form. 

Rosaire Appel: Abstract Comics, her debut show at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, presents another side of this artist’s eye-catching work. The six works (five pigment prints with ink and crayon additions and a two-panel laser print on acetate with acrylic backing) are either tall and narrow, like a Chinese ink painting, or short and wide, like a comic strip or scroll painting, but she has no need to develop a signature style as a comic-strip artist does.

In addition to asemic writing and comics, Appel’s work can be connected to concrete poetry; illegible, indecipherable, and secret notations; experimental music scores; distressed film; equations; diagrams; and computer glitches, without ever settling into any of these categories. 

Appel’s vertical and horizontal formats suggest a narrative that can be read either top to bottom or left to right, but what is within their borders resists that understanding. Instead, the work conveys simultaneously turmoil, states of disintegration, metamorphosis, and fragments verging on narrative. Because of the format and scale of her vocabulary, the work cannot be absorbed in a single glance. Comprehension seems just beyond our reach, like something we call “dark matter.” 

Rosaire Appel, “Belligerent Madrigal” (2022), pigment print with ink and crayon, 13 x 74 1/2 inches

What are these places to which Appel’s works transport us, where images, marks, smears, erasures, bits of language, and distorted and stretched musical scores exist, all hinting at something that both invites and resists being deciphered? With time, you begin to notice the way she suggests connections through proximity or in the figure-ground relationships, especially in the irregular geometric forms that evoke robots and interact with the white space between them. This formal astuteness shifts Appel’s work away from writing. 

Strolling through the gallery, a most unlikely association came to me, a line from “In Memoriam A. H. H. Obiit MDCCXXXIII: 7” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “The noise of life begins again ….” In Appel’s world, sound and image seem bonded; she addresses the clangorous world of the mass media and urban life, albeit from an oblique angle. On her website she states: 

I am an ex-writer/ visual artist working with interconnections among reading, looking and listening. The vehicles for my explorations are drawings (digital & analog) and books. This includes graphic novellas, abstract comics, asemic writing and asemic music. Since my language is visual, it’s international. I have a long practice of asemic writing […]. Currently I am working with sound. Though sound is invisible, it has structure. I listen for those structures — they produce ongoing revelations.

Of course, Appel does not tell us what these revelations are, as she wants us to discover them in her work.

I was also reminded of the “Voynich Manuscipt,” a 15th-century codex housed in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, that has never been deciphered, but was recently digitized. Made first in the digital realm, Appel’s works bring the world of enigmatic, purposeless texts to mind. Full of cryptic details, notations, and images, they are elaborate and mysterious invitations to strange new worlds. 

Detail of Rosaire Appel, “Hinging” (2022), pigment print with ink additions, 45 x 9 inches
Detail of Rosaire Appel, “Backtalk”
Rosaire Appel, “Rival Outtakes” (2022–23), pigment print with ink and crayon, 45 x 13 inches

Rosaire Appel: Abstract Comics continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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