In 1776 Benjamin Franklin was a celebrity in France. In a series of portraits made during that year, Franklin was depicted wearing a fur hat, the same chapeau that French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was known for wearing. According to the French, this made Franklin an enlightened thinker, like Rousseau. In his painting A Momentary Enlightenment (2010), Philadelphia artist Alexander Rosenberg depicts himself in the same hat. However, there is a surveillance camera behind one eye of the portrait that sends a live feed to a surveillance monitor on the opposite side of the room. On top of the monitor sits the same fur hat. And so, in looking at the painting, the viewer and Rosenberg wear the hat to become, for a moment, enlightened. This type of provisional (and at times, confounding) offering is emblematic of Rosenberg’s body of work.
In order to satisfy his need to deeply investigate the world around him, Rosenberg works across many mediums. However, all of his work comes from a very specific studio practice, and the artist notes: “I do work with a wide variety of materials and processes, but my approach to all of them comes from a rigorous studio practice rooted in a single material, glass. I’ve become a multidisciplinary artist, and I think it is important to note that I am really only an expert in one field. It is with that narrow area of expertise that I am able to enter into a larger conversation with other disciplines.”
From his ongoing work, To Fly (2009–present)—an eccentric attempt to capture enough houseflies to lift him off of the ground, displayed in a series of hand-blown glass beakers—to the creation of trompe l’oeil coins sold as collectibles and art objects, titled 2.6 Cents an Hour (2006), Rosenberg delves deeply into one notion at a time. The artist approaches each idea like a scientist, or a neo–Benjamin Franklin, without knowing exactly what outcome(s) to expect. In this way, many of his works become projects that unfold through the participation of his audience. For example, Rosenberg’s friends moved away after college, so he created a mechanism comprising a cardboard box, a disposable camera, and film-winding mechanism. The work was titled To Send Myself in the Mail (2006), and it took a picture of the recipient once the box was opened. As the box was closed the camera’s film was advanced, ready to capture the next surprised face.
Rosenberg is interested in myriad subjects—natural and laboratory sciences, drawing, technology, history, identity, craft, and small-scale reclamation and reconfiguration projects. One could say that Rosenberg is working not in a contemporary popular research-based practice but in a series of ways that first require research but then create areas to be researched. When I asked Rosenberg about his relationship to audience participation and how it shapes his thinking and his projects, he displayed a down-to-earth complexity in approach.
“I find audience members do have to actively decide to participate in elements of most projects. I often make people wait, or look very closely, give them the option to read about the work, listen to sonic components. The question of how much participation is necessary to experience the work is something I grapple with, but ultimately I am comfortable with audience members deciding what level of participation creates a satisfying experience.”
Rosenberg’s materials may change, but he is always finding ways to communicate his interests through experimentation and a historically rooted consciousness coupled with an awareness of contemporary technology and ethos. After examining Rosenberg’s practice through his many projects, I began to wonder what the artist may have been doing had he been born two hundred years ago; I get the feeling that he is asking himself this same question all of the time.
Alexander Rosenberg is a multimedia artist living and working in Philadelphia. He is a full-time faculty member at the University of Arts Philadelphia and has been a member of the Vox Populi Gallery since 2012. Rosenberg attended MIT in the Visual Arts Program and Rhode Island School of Design. His work has been shown in Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, Providence, Cambridge, and Rochester.