The recent proliferation of smart, funny, cartoony paintings by younger artists in New York has coincided with the rediscovery, through a spate of museum and gallery shows, of work by artists who made smart, funny, cartoony work half a century ago, often outside New York. It’s not clear which trend is driving the other, but both are certainly welcome. The two-dozen works by Suellen Rocca in her first New York solo show were made between 1965 and 1969, while she was exhibiting with the Hairy Who, the standard-bearers for the larger Chicago Imagist group.
Given that she was twenty-two and a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago when she made the four largest paintings in the show, it’s no surprise that they’re not as accomplished as the later drawings and paintings here. The word COMICS cuts across the diptych Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature (1965)—the largest piece, at just under seven feet tall and ten feet wide—and identifies a major source of her imagery. The canvas is jam-packed with small pictograms—flat forms with bold outlines—that represent ice cream cones, people, and furniture. Reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Rocca’s emblems reflect the visual culture of midcentury American suburbia, a world of advertisements, cartoons, and junk food. The palette is dominated by dirty peach and pea green, applied in an unfussy manner on some of the pictograms. Others are left bare so that the gessoed surface of the canvas and a few stray marks of charcoal underdrawing are visible. Despite this lack of finish, which feels indebted to a kind of residual art-school expressionism, the work, like Rocca’s other large paintings, has chutzpah. It reflects an encyclopedic ambition to create a dense visual catalogue on such a scale that the work barely fits through a gallery door.
In the following four years, Rocca stuck to her root language of iconic forms rendered bluntly, as if constrained by the conditions of a cheap printing process. But she transformed her subject matter through more complex compositional techniques so that her pictograms create unexpected resonances with dream imagery. She experimented most freely as a draftsman. Big Policeman (ca. 1968) is a crisp, black pen-and-ink work on paper featuring a menagerie of tiny objects, including pants, pine trees, and poodles. These elements are layered and superimposed, creating odd negative spaces and complicating the meaning of each iconic form. A cop’s silhouette is filled with squiggly lines that separate it into three dozen smaller spaces, the way geographic boundaries function on a map. The figure is in the bottom third of the composition and separated from the upper portion by a line, above which is a shelving unit with bowling trophies. A complete description of any of these drawings would fill a novella, but this drawing, with its repeating pyramid shapes and masculine icons, suggests how imposing figures can be broken down into many small parts.
By the time Rocca painted Palm Finger, in 1968, her mastery of color had caught up to her compositional virtuosity. She switched palettes for different parts of this painting. Against a sky-blue background, a giant phallic finger is rendered in naturalistic pinks with pale blue veins. On its tip sits a palm tree in a full chromatic scale. Two braids of green, yellow, and purple yarn serve as a frame for the picture, and pick up the colors in the palm tree.
The show’s bet on Rocca’s timeliness is a good one. Dana Schutz and Trenton Doyle Hancock are only two of the best known of the countless younger artists working with cartoon-inspired figuration. Rocca approached pop culture through humor and the uncanny. It’s inspiring to think of the twenty-something Rocca, often working while her two young children slept, riffing on commercial culture’s id.