Very Fine, Indeed
Way back in the halcyon days of July, SFR held our annual Illustrator’s Cup contest. Perhaps you’d be surprised that we don’t honestly receive that many illustrations for the yearly thing, more paintings, really, but that’s OK because paintings and digital collages and whatever else Santa Feans send are fine by us—turns out you don’t even have to be a well-known artist to be good at making art. And though the judging was fast and furious and full of more than a few “Fuck you!” moments between staffers, we like to think we ended up with an impressive selection of original pieces.
But then there was that one entry we loved but didn’t print. Or couldn’t? Maybe it’s something about how we should have, but got nervous. Don’t worry, because we still wound up choosing an entry from local oil painter Charles Rosenthal (the 2nd Place-winning “Selfie” based on the Jan. 6 Capitol Riot), but the work we honestly liked more, a surrealism-meets-realism number dubbed “Very Fine People,” was set aside.
Well, it’s kind of tricky. See, “Very Fine People” elicits visions of the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, tiki torch rally spearheaded by white supremacists whom former president Donald Trump described as “very fine people,” thus the painting’s namesake. There’s a dreaded MAGA hat in the piece. And swastikas. Its four terrifying humanoid subjects seem to be making their way across some sort of stormy void. We figured that to print it without an explanation from its creator (something for which the contest issue doesn’t have much space) would have resulted in readers taking a quick glance, seeing Nazi ephemera and making snap assumptions about its content, even if the painter’s last name is Rosenthal—even if we’d like to think SFR has proven we’re not pro-Nazi at some point during our decades of existence.
So I tracked Rosenthal down (it wasn’t hard since I literally had his email already) and met up with him to get a clearer idea of the reasoning behind “Very Fine People.”
But let’s go back a little bit first, because it turns out Rosenthal has done some pretty interesting living.
A native of New York City, Rosenthal became what he calls a “serious painter” during high school. Afterward, he would have been part of the first accredited graduating class at the School of Visual Arts. Attending on on a full scholarship, Rosenthal’s father died in 1979, at which point, he says, he sort of embraced nihilism and dropped out. By 1981, he’d entered the community college system to study physical anthropology. A resultant work study in Costa Rica took him out of America for the first time, where he learned more about the Iran-Contra stuff and Nicaragua.
“I came back to America, and there were two things that became clear: The environmental degradation going on at the time and the military situation in Nicaragua,” he tells SFR. “I became politicized. I opened my eyes. So, I came back talking to anyone who would listen, and nobody could care less.”
What was a politicized and painterly anthropology enthusiast to do?
“I decided to go to Europe,” Rosenthal explains, “and see if it was any better over there.”
Selling his prized comic book and record collections, Rosenthal flew to London, which he’d consider home base for roughly 17 years. Waiting tables, bartending and painting in his free time, he’d marry his then-girlfriend (something he says they “never would have done under any circumstances if I weren’t going to have to leave the country,”) and the relationship disintegrated shortly thereafter. He traveled, met and married a French national (who’s still a good friend, he says) and continued working on his degree. Today, he’s one math credit short of achieving the damn thing, but it seems he doesn’t care.
With his French wife, Rosenthal would travel to and work in Africa and Asia; they’d set up shop in the south of France for a time. By 1999, his mother retired to Tucson. Facing divorce once more, he went to visit her and stayed a year before returning to New York City. All the while, he was painting. Back home, he’d pick up professional gallery representation while meeting and marrying a third time. The couple would move to Los Angeles and implode as well. Then it was back to New York, a fourth marriage in 2005 (that one stuck) and once Rosenthal lost an art director job with ad agency Droga 5—and his wife discovered she could work remotely—the couple moved to Santa Fe in May because “the art scene seemed more accessible than Los Angeles or New York.”
Whew. Still with me? Take your time and think about it, because that’s a lot. You good? OK, let’s press on.
Which brings us to today and the patio of Iconik Coffee Roaster’s original Lena Street location where I explain to Rosenthal why we didn’t run “Very Fine People” in our Illustrator’s Cup issue. Turns out he understands our concerns, and that the core of the piece came from a quick sketch he drew in ‘93 or ‘94 of four strange figures seemingly in transit across a shapeless background. Every so often he’d pull it out and consider a new direction, but when the Charlottesville stuff went down in 2017, inspiration finally struck. Make no mistake, the creatures in Rosenthal’s piece are not meant to be celebrated or considered heroic in any way.
“I just felt like I had something to say about it—not a responsibility, but something I had to get out of me,” he says. “Living abroad for so many years, you learn to fear Americans, and today I think Charlottesville was, in a way, so much more upsetting an incident than the Capitol insurrection. This all feeds into where we are now, and just because you’re educated doesn’t mean you’re intelligent or able to think clearly or critically.”
So there you have it. Will you hang “Very Fine People” in your house? Probably not, but here’s hoping it at least inspires a conversation. Or maybe winds up in a museum someday? Oh, and before I forget, I’m gonna need a local gallery to start representing Rosenthal. Dude’s amazing.