Abstract painting

Northfield Gallery Confronts False Claim That Abstract Painting Depicts ‘Antifa’ Logo

Mark Rosalbo’s painting “Graffiti Art”, which some people claim contains antifa propaganda. Courtesy picture

Andrea Melville estimates that, under normal circumstances, 80% of the people who pass by her art gallery every day never stop to see the pieces displayed in the window.

But this weekend, Melivlle noticed more eyes lingering outside of ART etc, the gallery she runs in Northfield. Rather than deciding whether the large abstract painting hanging in the window contains more Jasper Johns than Elaine de Kooning, Melville suspects attention is drawn to recent accusations that the artwork contains antifa propaganda.

On Thursday, Melville’s owner informed her that he had received complaints from the military community – Northfield is home to Norwich University, a private military college – that the painting contains a logo and symbol for antifa. According to Melville, the landlord said he was considering not renewing the gallery’s lease.

“When I had my jaw on the floor, I said, this is nonsense. There’s nothing there,” Melville said. “I didn’t even know there was – if there was even – an antifa symbol.”

The painting in question is called “Graffiti Art” by Mark Rosalbo, an amateur artist who lives in Randolph. It’s one of about 100 paintings Rosalbo has done during the pandemic, 40 of which are on display at ART, etc. in an exhibition called “Pandemic Art”.

Melville said “Graffiti Art” is in the window because it’s big — 4 feet by 8 feet — and she had nowhere to display it.

Before the pandemic, Rosalbo had never dabbled in painting. He learned to play the piano as a teenager and studied acting in college, but his creative pursuits fell out of habit as he grew older. Work, children, life: the usual story.

Then, in the days of Covid, Rosalbo and his wife were stuck at home, and their children were also at home, attending school online. He started spending more time in the basement and started painting, using recycled materials and household paint.

“It turned into this big project to distract us from all the stress that was going on around us,” Rosalbo said.

When he ran out of cardboard, Rosalbo painted over items he collected on walks, seeking respite from seemingly endless Zoom meetings. He could work his atrophied creative muscles, while building a physical catalog of life during the pandemic.

Andrea Melville displayed this sign in her window, next to Mark Rosalbo’s painting “Graffiti Art.” Courtesy picture

Certain patterns emerge from the exhibition when taken as a whole. Grid-like patterns appear frequently, which Rosalbo said in a statement is a combination of “dreamlike buildings from childhood with Zoom grid images on a computer.” The works are colorful and playful in Part III, titled “Hope”, but darker in Part II, titled “End of Times”.

“I never really consciously decided what I was going to do on a painting,” Rosalbo said, “but it was the things that were happening in my life that ended up showing up in the works.”

Antifa was not one of those things, Rosalbo said. He had heard of antifa from watching the news, but, like Melville, he was unaware of any logos or even a solid understanding of the movement’s ideology.

Figuring out what antifa is and isn’t can be a bit like interpreting, say, a piece of abstract art. Short for “anti-fascist”, antifa is generally understood as a loose network of activists or lone groups who militantly oppose fascism, racism and other forms of far-right ideology.

However, after the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, some suggested that antifa was in fact responsible for the violence. FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March that there was no evidence of antifa involvement. These claims were also denied by the rioters themselves.

‘People see what they want to see’

Melville was shocked by the accusation that she was posting antifa propaganda in her window. She has been exhibiting ART, etc., for nearly two years, but none of her previous exhibitions have elicited such a strong reaction.

Andrea Melville, who owns ART etc in Northfield, is upset over claims that artwork in her window includes antifa propaganda. Courtesy picture

“At one point I said, you can look at the clouds; everyone sees something different,” Melville said. “People see what they want to see, even if it’s not there.”

After being confronted by her landlord on Thursday, Melville said she discovered another local businessman had contacted a local lawyer to see what could be done about the supposed antifa logo displayed.

Worried and distraught, Melville phoned the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and the Vermont Human Rights Commission on Friday morning. She also filed a verbal complaint with the Northfield Police Department, she said, and was assured that she had a First Amendment right to keep the painting.

Melville also made a sign – addressed to “all Fox News racists and fanatics” – to place next to the “Graffiti Art” board. “This painting is not what you claim it is,” he said. “It’s art. Period.”

Still, Melville fears losing her lease and being bullied by her neighbors.

The exhibition that preceded Rosalbo’s in ART, etc. was also shrouded in controversy. Last fall, 17 of 19 small works of art created by students at Northfield High School were vandalized within two days of being placed in a public park. The pieces were reflections on Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” said Melville, a book that shines a light on anti-black racism and police brutality.

Someone had taken pictures of the pieces before they were vandalized, and Melville posted enlarged versions in his gallery.

“My father was a colonel”

It’s the comments that suggest Melville doesn’t understand the military that feel the most absurd, she said. Melville said she came from a family steeped in military service, with strong ties to Norwich University.

His great-grandfather was president of Norwich, and his father and uncle both graduated from Norwich. One cousin served in the military in the Korean War and another in the Vietnam War.

Between the Revolutionary War and Vietnam, Melville said, his family members served in every war and every conflict.

“They have this attitude of, ‘Well, you don’t understand the military,'” Melville said. ” Yeah I know that. My father was a colonel when he retired. I think I know a little.

Rosalbo doesn’t think this incident will stop him from making more art. A deeper part of him, he says, wants to use this moment as something constructive — for the community, for Melville and himself. But at first he found the response to the gallery daunting.

“My first reaction was that it is naive to think that we can try to somehow reduce the division that seems to be worsening in our country,” Rosalbo said.

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