Rosaire Appel – Cajoling sound and image

Rosaire Appel, your face, abstract comic, 2016, 16×20” pigment print, photo courtesy of the artist

Rosaire Appel ‘s rigorous graphic explorations reveal an acute sensibility to the elusive line between language / sound and image. Her skills as a photographer, writer and draftswoman seamlessly coalesce in her book forms. We first met when I covered her exhibition at Schema Projects in 2013 – her  abstract comics engaged me with their endless imaginative iterations and I have been curious to learn how her work has evolved since.

AS: Please tell me a bit about yourself.

 Rosaire Appel: I live in New York. I was born here, but grew up in other places – some rural, some suburban. I came back when I was 20, rents were cheap and museums were musty. I’ve lived here, in various neighborhoods, ever since.

AS: Your work defies categories, but if I have to fit it in a wide definition, I would say it is close to abstract comics. Does this sit right with you? Can you elaborate on that?

 Rosaire Appel: My exhibit “Untranslated” at Schema Projects in Brooklyn (2013) was a selection of visual books / abstract comics and digital drawings. My abstract comics are basically sequential images without a representational narrative. I suspect I was influenced here by the look of contact sheets of film negatives from my darkroom days.

Also, digital drawing is very receptive to multiple iterations. I’m not a comics aficionado but I’m drawn to the look of them: the limited color, clear graphics, and their receptivity to verbal inclusions (balloons).  I still use these basic book forms because they are, well, basic, uncomplicated. The inside is more important to me than the outside.

Rosaire Appel, pages from “Where In / a series of events” 2016, 6”x9”, 44 pages, hardcover, available at, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: The digital revolution has probably affected book arts in significant ways. I am curious to know what’s your take on that and where do you see it going.

 Rosaire Appel: In the 90’s, having finished a couple of experimental novels which I had written in the 80’s and published in the early 90’s, I was returning to visuals by way of darkroom photography. Digital cameras were primitive, as was digital printing, but I was familiar with word processing and as graphic capabilities became part of the mix (thanks to Apple), I was eager to investigate. The prospect of  being able to do to a drawing what I could do with text was really exciting – i.e. cut and paste, re-organize, splice, un-do, save variations.

Guided by the tutorial that came with the first version of Adobe Illustrator I began learning digital visual language. Realizing that the only way to become fluent in this was through practice, I began making small stapled booklets (zines) using drawings and short texts. This was the primitive beginning of my book-making, and also the beginning of my enthusiasm for digital technology. I laser-printed 3”x4” digital line-screens and drawings on acetate, took them into the enlarger, and printed them.

Gradually my computer turned into a vast art studio where I loved to spend time – I ventured into video and animation, digital sound and even architecture using software that was sometimes free and sometimes not. This was before subscriptions and before the threat of viruses made downloading free software risky.

Rosaire Appel, incident 4:30” , 2012, pigment print, 22”x42”, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Your work is rich with visual and linguistic references. What is your typical source material (can you include some of your major influences)?

 Rosaire Appel: I never know what’s going to get me going until it happens. I happened to see a Xu Bing exhibit in “Square Word Calligraphy Classroom” at the Columbia University  art gallery in 2011. Part of this exhibit was a class-room like installation – visitors could take a seat at the low tables and with brush and ink draw characters in a practice book. Sitting there that afternoon was so satisfying that I didn’t want to do anything else.

I cleaned up my studio and spent the next several months drawing in ink on 16”x20” paper, but it was less like drawing than practice. I used a simple angular configuration repeatedly, not exactly writing, not exactly drawing but closely linked to both. After about six months I began to move on, but not without first making “Idiot Pages” (2013), a book of the project, a record of it.

Rosaire Appel, Reaching , abstract comic, 2014, 16×20” pigment print, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What gets you going – How do you start a project?

Rosaire Appel: Word and Image. I’ve gone back and forth between these forever. I started with poetry, moved to painting (the New York Studio School in the late sixties), then to fiction writing, to photography – and then back to drawing, both analog and digital, and to making books. Word and image are like oil and water (make that vinegar). They do not want to mix. They have to be cajoled. The issue is that words require reading and images require looking – two very different acts. I notice that in a book with mostly words and few images, I’ll focus on the images but in a book with many images and few words, it’s the words I go for. But this might just be expedience. I admire W.G. Sebald’s use of photographs in his novels – they magically draw you in and then keep you out.

AS: Can you give me examples for what you see as the tension between word and image?

Rosaire Appel: A prime example of the tension between word and image is comic books: the reader is constantly yanked between two different modes of perception – looking and reading. Reading comics is an active venture. I should mention that my relationship to words in general has been contentious, which is why I’ve thought so much about them: who they are and how can they be coerced into cooperating, how can they be kept from dying on the page, but that is another story.

One solution I’ve come up with to avoid words is to use language instead. Because I like language, its presence makes me comfortable. Language can be indicated through arrangements of sticks and stones, marks on paper, or the spacing of elements on a page: language doesn’t require words. This is where asemic writing comes in. My recent book “ZINC, ZANC, ZUNC” is an abstract comic with asemic writing. (Published by Post-Asemic Press, 2017)

Rosaire Appel, “insulation”, 2017, pigment print, 16”x33”, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What does “asemic” mean to you?

Rosaire Appel: My involvement with visual music and sound began in 2012, when my visual songs book “See Songs” was published. The pages are improvisational drawings rather than actual musical scores. I call it “asemic” music, though this word is more commonly used with writing.

Asemic writing (not to be confused with anemic writing, a spell-check substitute) has no semantic value and involves no codified system of marks: it looks like writing but cannot be conventionally read. “Sea Songs” was directly inspired by John Cage’s “Notations”. It was thrilling to enter the realm of music visually. It was new territory for me – like finding extra rooms in my house that I didn’t know were there. At one point, a music group in London contacted me and actually performed a few pages.

Rosaire Appel, An extended homogeneous tone with leaks and skips – like an engine that sputters and backfires, 2018, in three pieces 9×12” each, ink and acrylic on duralar, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What are you working on now?

Rosaire Appel: Even as I was finishing “See Songs”I knew I would return to the subject, and now I have. But instead of music, I am focused on sound – our sonic environment. I am searching for ways to open this up through drawing – not in the sense of one-to-one translations of audible events, but rather finding linear qualities and gestures that can relate sound. Transforming noise into sound by way of the ear and simply listening is a big part of it. And constantly drawing, searching, discovering – drawing with ink on paper or Duralar, using a range of drawing implements, both over-the-counter and handmade. A book will come about from these drawings eventually, but I have no vision of it at the moment. I have a marimba in the kitchen that I construct sound patterns on, and a keyboard – and if I had an extra several hours a day I would certainly explore this more.

Rosaire Appel in her studio, photo courtesy of the artist