Kit Rosenberg

When Through 11/17

Where Harold Washington College, 30 E. Lake, room 1105

Info 312-553-5738

Kit Rosenberg’s portraits at Harold Washington College are made with his subjects’ household dust, which he collects using a vacuum cleaner, later separating it from chunkier debris. Working from his own photos, Rosenberg draws in glue, applies the dust, then covers it in beeswax–he says he’s inspired in part by the tactility of Jasper Johns’s encaustic paintings. In most of them he adds coloration by mixing in shoe polish or acrylic paint. Most have five layers of drawings and five of beeswax because, he says, we have five layers of skin. But the layering also dematerializes the picture, which hovers like a mental image at indeterminate depth. Rendered in pale, wispy grays and browns, these spectral figures suggest absence as much as presence.

Rosenberg says he lived in his head a lot as a child and is “wistful and nostalgic today, which might be one reason I like ghostly images made of remnants.” His family moved often and tended to buy older, “lived-in” houses, where he’d search for evidence of past occupants. In one home he found a painting of a girl tucked away, “covered with layers of dust,” and in another “pots and pans with really crusty food inside.” He’d make up stories about the previous occupants and developed an interest in ghosts. “I like things under the surface,” he says. He also dug up the backyards, where on various occasions he found musket balls, cannonballs, and fossils. “Once I found a garden hose buried three feet underground, which I thought was really bizarre.”

It took six years, but Rosenberg earned a BFA at the School of the Art Institute in 2006. During his second year there he began making miniature cairns out of dust and glue and placing them around the city. He also had a temporarily traumatic experience with dust when a friend discovered an abandoned mattress factory. “The coolest part was the basement,” Rosenberg says. “You really had to work like hell to get down there–the entrance was covered with debris. Once you got in, there was a whole room stacked with urinals, a whole wall of telephone routers, and these absurd-looking machines. Everything was covered with dust, and we’d pick it up and throw it at each other and roll around in it.” After a few visits they found evidence that the “dust” was asbestos. Rosenberg then researched asbestos-related diseases–he was relieved to discover they usually follow decades of exposure–and also household dust. Learning that it’s composed mostly of the skin we shed, he was struck by the thought that “we have all these traces of ourselves floating around in the world.”

In about 2002, when Rosenberg was living in a Chicago house he and others believed was haunted, he began doing “dust portraits” on others’ windows (usually without asking permission). Applying glue to a screen print of a photo, he’d slap it on the glass, then sprinkle dust on the glue. The application took less than a minute. By his last year of art school, dissatisfied with the “typical student” paintings and collages he was doing and impressed by the throngs who went to see the supposed image of the Virgin Mary on the I-94 underpass at Fullerton, he returned to dust portraits, this time on glass panels mounted indoors for greater permanence. Later he added the multiple layers and began creating lines by coloring incisions he made in the first layer of wax. These can look like contour lines and sometimes help delineate the subjects, but other times they’re more mysterious, as if Rosenberg were guessing at invisible features. The figure in Greg looks downward, lost in himself, while the bold lines in his face and jacket project his presence outward. The subject’s eyes in Devon are obscured by shadow, the lines like hieroglyphs accentuating her inscrutability. There are no lines in Rosenberg’s Self Portrait #3, which is also the only piece not made with dust–it’s made of hairs collected from his electric razor. Here the pose is more direct than in other portraits, but the image has an especially ghostly granularity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea (portrait).