The paintings in Noel Rockmore’s exhibition “Mardi Gras Backstage” continue an important tradition in the history of modern art - the depiction of circuses and other forms of live, popular entertainment from behind the scenes.
Picasso, and before him Toulouse-Lautrec, painted entertainers offstage, recording their melancholy, disenchantment and even despair - sharp contrasts to the uplifting gaiety that audiences pay money to experience during performances. Indeed, the “backstage” in the title of Rockmore’s show may be understood as a metaphor for modern art’s principal goal: luring spectators away from their ordinary habits of thinking and feeling.
Rockmore’s new paintings do not portray human performers backstage. Instead, his works depict the crowded interiors of Mardi Gras “dens” - storehouses for the colossal figures and objects, called props, that are used to decorate Carnival floats. (The paintings were reportedly inspired by visits to floatbuilder Blaine Kern’s mammoth dens in Algiers.)
Typically, Rockmore’s paintings picture haphazard arrangements of these props, juxtaposed in unexpected, often startling ways. For example, “The Cyclops” pictures, in addition to the one-eyed monster of its title, a truncated view of the steamship Titanic and a human skull. These and other props in the painting are deliberately portrayed in strange, illogical sizes: each is too big or too small in relation to the “real” scale of the other objects depicted.
This treatment results in paintings that seem hallucinogenic or dreamlike, bringing to mind the “picture postcard” variety of Surrealism practiced by Salvador Dali and Paul Delvaux. Like these artists, Rockmore presents us with a seemingly irrational melange of recognizable images, whose juxtaposition reflects the workings of our unconscious minds.
Disciples of Freud - among them the Surrealists - would argue that unconscious drives always determine our conscious behavior (which is a clinical way of addressing the concept “backstage”). In Rockmore’s paintings, weird juxtapositions and inconsistencies in scale clearly suggest kinship with the Surrealists and Freud. However, a particular aspect of human psychology - the fear of death - seems ultimately to explain the paintings in “Mardi Gras Backstage.”
Many of Rockmore’s images, for example the Titanic and skull, refer directly to death. Moreover, black is used extensively in many of the paintings, both in flat, uninflected backgrounds and in the shading of otherwise brightly colored props. The paintings, which ostensibly picture the accoutrements of a celebration of life, are in reality somber reminders of the inevitability of death.
In terms of execution, the paintings are much more polished than past shows of the artist’s work here. The unevenness of his previous paintings, with their frequently crude and sloppily painted passages, is happily kept to a minimum in the current show.
Moreover, the artist’s concern with manipulating scale - his juxtapositions of large and small elements - sometimes results in compositions that are exceptionally strong. The best-composed painting in the show, a large circular canvas picturing birds and the bandaged face of a mummy (yet another allusion to death), is entitled “Mardi Gras Elegy.”
Besides paintings, Rockmore is showing two small, free-standing sculptures, the first he has ever created. The more successful of these works, a stylized marble “Cyclops,” depicts a prop of the kind portrayed in the paintings. The smooth-surfaced sculpture includes a rough chunk of unfinished marble, which the Cyclops is shown as holding in his hands. This chunk, a part of the original block of marble, was intentionally left raw by Rockmore, who chiseled and polished the remainder of the sculpture around it.
The Cyclops sculpture, a highlight of the show, represents a promising beginning for Rockmore’s career as a sculptor.
Photo caption: “Mardi Gras Elegy” by Noel Rockmore