I like to think of Noel Rockmore as an inventor, not in the formal sense, but in relation to temperament. Here is an artist whose compulsion to paint has yielded over 6,000 pieces, many of which have landed in prestigious collections. In his new exhibit at the Sandra Zahn Oreck Gallery, many of the paintings were just recently completed in 1980. Rockmore will tell you he does nothing else but paint to achieve such quantity.
He has manufactured his own unique brand of fantasy-reality with total disregard for status quo. His penchant for doing what he damn well pleases has resulted in a wide variety of paintings which reveal a healthy addiction to experimentation. This fact, alone, has added punch to the already mysterious quality of his peculiar imagery. Rockmore is a mongrel with the technical discipline of a master and the abandonment of a mixed breed who follows his instincts.
It is the diversity of style which challenges and bewilders his audience. One moment our gaze is fixed upon a clear, primitively simple painting entitled the “Crew of the Kate Thomas”, depicting the crew standing full-front in portrait-like fashion. The colors, composition and even the facial expressions are neat, clean and tidy. The next moment we face “Nighthawk II”, a collage and tempera painting that echos a more elusive and brooding feeling. The rough-hewn images demand extra scrutiny. The viewer who is unfamiliar with Rockmore is at a serious disadvantage. Those who know his work realize these examples are part of the paradox, characteristic of this painter. When confronted with such a vivid juxtaposition of styles and themes, it becomes necessary to focus first on the similarities. He doesn’t make it easy for the viewer like so many artists who product in robot-like fashion 70 variations on a theme, locked into one style, one price, whatever works best for him. But, for Rockmore it is often his experimentation that has become his undoing, for many critics will not tolerate his stylistic inconsistencies.
But aside from the seediness of his characters, richness and equal gaudiness of color, and obvious strength as a draftsman, Rockmore possesses the special ability to convey through subtle detail and twists of pictorial narrative, a sense of inner psychological passion. Simply put, he commands an unsettling awareness of the human condition: its frailties, vulgarities, banalities and even its triumphs. It has been said that Rockmore merely records as an observer the reality he sees, holding his own subjective interpretations in reserve. He manages to do this effectively because his subjects need no explanation. They speak unerringly of themselves, revealing their decay, their myth, their disintegration amidst the tinsel of bright colors and masks of glitter.
In this show we see Rockmore on a multitude of levels: wrapped up in carnival, oddly humorous in his new “Metaphysical” series, connected with death and shadows in the brooding and poignant watercolor studies of Bill Russell. Each watercolor is an example of the draftsman at work, exhibiting an unusual talent for producing strong, silent, evocative portraits with minimal strokes of the brush. The contours of Russell’s face appear to be chiseled from fine air, resulting in the odd feeling that somehow the subject willed himself painted; Rockmore was just a medium, incidental to the whole.
It is a temperamental show, full of deviation. One can only wonder what more and of what nature will evolve from this contemporary master.