One of the paintings by Felicia DeRosa currently on display at the Vanderelli Room depicts a model in a relaxed pose, her face casting down, turned away from the viewer. Her entire demeanor suggests the image was captured at the precise moment her guard had completely evaporated and the full force of her being had settled into its most comfortable self.
“This is someone who in their everyday life is a professional model, and I took over 150 photos of her, and this was the only one where she was no longer ‘on,’” DeRosa said in late October from the Vanderelli Room, where her current, career-spanning show closes on Saturday, Oct. 28. “And this was because I lied and told her I was done, and she started telling me about a relationship she had, and I got something. I wanted something where it felt like you were almost intruding, and there is this delicate moment of seeing something that normally you would not see. It’s an honor and a privilege to experience this human being in all of their humanness.”
The same could be said of the rest of the exhibit, which features works DeRosa has created throughout her career, and which offer myriad moments of heart-rending vulnerability from an artist who described herself as a very private person in her daily existence.
Included among the works are a painting of bright sunflowers DeRosa painted as a gift for her late grandmother, the back of which is inscribed with a note from the artist to the elder. The painting rests in between a series of portraits, including one of DeRosa’s father, who she described as a man “who would present himself with a smile, but you never knew what would trigger a violent reaction in him.”
There is also a wooden sculpture of a double-sided vanity, which allows two viewers to sit across from one another, separated by a glassless frame. DeRosa said the installation has inspired a range of reactions ranging from playfulness – she said it’s not uncommon to watch two people consciously or unconsciously mirror one another’s movement – to outright revulsion, triggering in some a sense of dysmorphia and deep discomfort.
The vanity rests a few paces from another interactive exhibit – this one an altar rooted in DeRosa’s Catholic upbringing, which invites viewers to kneel before a flaccid bronzed penis and calls into question the patriarchal nature of the church, among other considerations. (I, for one, couldn’t help but recall the lingering sexual abuse scandal that exists globally within the institution.)
The north wall of the space features a series of stark, black, Rorschach-like paper cutouts formed from of a mix of bodies, ravens and cicadas – an insect that appears in various forms throughout the gallery and to which DeRosa feels a connection, comparing its collective buzzing to the hum she has come to associate with her bipolar diagnosis. “That shhhh sound, for me it’s like racing thoughts. And it’s being able to think about 10 things at the same time and focus on 10 things at the same time, and not have them overwhelm,” DeRosa said. “They represent white noise to me. And I’ll listen to a white noise machine sometimes, when I need to calm my head down.”
Cicadas reappear in the exhibits most staggering installation, hundreds of pink, circus peanut-sized insects shaped in the form of a body, posed on the floor as if it’s dragging itself away from the scene. Behind it, a hollowed-out body lined with pages from the Gideons bible is strung from the ceiling, as if ascending, while the slithering form is flanked on both sides by a trio of black, turkey vulture-sized birds, each with a camera for a head.
“I wanted to develop something that was a conversation about being observed and criticized and pulled apart,” DeRosa said. “We live our lives online, where we voluntarily put all of our information out there, where anybody can follow you on social media and know everything about you without having met you.”
But this is just one of many layers embedded within the work, which has evolved since it was first installed and will continue to do so in future editions.
The first time DeRosa constructed the piece, for example, the cicada-body was positioned on its back, as though deceased. So, while the scene at the Vanderelli Room might appear dark at first blush, there’s a newfound element of hope that has been introduced, as though the form might escape its current foreboding circumstances and find itself anew. (Fittingly, DeRosa declared herself a fan of transformation and the idea that anyone can improve and take on a new, more enlightened form.)
“For me, it becomes a conversation about evolution and about becoming and about getting away from all of the things that are holding you back,” said DeRosa, who stressed the importance of maintaining a balance in her work between formalism, or strong technique, and high-concept ideas that allow viewers to engage with the art on their own terms. “Some people have read it as the unknown: What happens after this life? And some people have read it as escaping the oppressions of religion. And then others have seen it as an allegory for transition and self-discovery and self-emancipation. And, yes, it’s all of those things. But it’s also none of those things.”