New Orleans artist Noel Rockmore, who recently visited Haiti, has recorded his impressions of that colorful Caribbean country in a series of acrylic, gouache and watercolor paintings. These spirited works, while dealing with subject matter that is new for the artist, are stylistically almost identical with his earlier, familiar depictions of the French Quarter and Carnival.
The artist’s busy style has certain affinities with the naive painting produced by many contemporary Haitians (whose efforts were displayed here five years ago in the traveling exhibition “Haitian Art” at the New Orleans Museum of Art). Moreover, the culture of Haiti, a former French colony, has many affinities with that of New Orleans (as was revealed in the “Haitian Art” catalog).
As a result, Rockmore’s distinctive painting style - exploiting the unnaturally bright colors of carnival pageantry and generating a dreamlike, somewhat surreal atmosphere or mood - is appropriately applied to scenes of life in Haiti. However, some of this writer’s reservations about Rockmore’s earlier art also apply to his Haitian works.
The artist’s new acrylics - actually painted with “acrylic tempera and oil” - are the largest, most polished works in his exhibit. Painted with the aid of photographs after his return to New Orleans, these ambitious efforts include panoramic, figure-filled views of markets and voodoo ceremonies, plus more intimate portrayals of Haitians at work and play.
The most successful acrylic, “The Charcoal Market,” portrays an animated crowd of male and female figures; many of the women are balancing baskets and other burdens on their heads. The artist’s vibrant palette leans heavily in the direction of bright pastels. And happily missing from this and most of the other Haitian paintings is the black shading of colored shapes that often gives the artist’s New Orleans works an unattractive, grimy appearance.
In addition, most of the figures in “The Charcoal Market” are more of less similar in size, causing the painting to resemble a decorative pattern, without a dramatic hierarchy of parts. In this respect, it differs from “Black Republic,” which features black, silhouetted foreground figures noticeably larger than those in the mid- and background.
Moreover, “The Charcoal Market” is enlivened by the manner in which realistically shaded and flat color areas are juxtaposed in the artist’s portrayal of the crowd: Many of the black figures are accented by white highlights, while others are unmodeled silhouettes. These alternating shaded and flat passages animate and endow the painting’s patterned composition with a strong sense of rhythm.
In the past Rockmore has incorporated flat, unshaded images in his paintings, often with a startlingly crude effect. This unexpected crudeness can still be seen in some of his new works, particularly “Haitian Family.” However, in “The Charcoal Market,” relatively crude and polished passages are successfully combined to create an agreeable, energizing impression of tension.
Besides the acrylics, Rockmore is showing a collection of watercolors and gouaches, created in Haiti and representing the pages of an unbound souvenir book. These efforts, looser and more spontaneous-looking than the acrylics, frequently feature large areas of color superimposed with flowing outlines, and somewhat recall the art of Raoul Dufy.
Some of these works, like “Tap-Tap,” fill every inch of the paper with descriptive or decorative markings. By contrast, others (for example, a spirited portrayal of two cocks fighting) leave large areas of background space blank. Finally, some of the paintings, like “Arrival in Haiti” (the book’s title page), feature collage elements of various kinds.
To this writer, the loose watercolors and gouaches are the most interesting and worthwhile results of Rockmore’s recent sojourn in Haiti. His handling of the acrylics, while relatively polished as compared to many of his earlier New Orleans works, is still, like them, uneven.
Photo caption: Artist Noel Rockmore uses a vibrant palette to record an animated crowd scene in “The Charcoal Market,” left. His spirited renditions of life in the colorful Caribbean country were made after a recent visit, and are now on view at Bryant Galleries.