Noel Rockimore’s dreamlike paintings of Carnival, the French Quarter and Haiti have always impressed this writer as being extremely uneven. Within the same painting one is likely to discover passages that are skillfully executed - i.e., that are convincing and/or evocative of gut-level feelings - alongside passages whose sloppy summariness is outrageous.
The current exhibit of his recent work at the Posselt-Baker Gallery strongly confirms this impression, while also focusing attention on one aspect of his painting in which the unevenness shows itself blatantly. Rockmore, as the exhibit reveals, frequently combines two antagonistic painting styles, linear and painterly, within the same work.
These opposed styles were first described by the German art historian Heinrich Woelfflin, who used the term “linear” to refer to art representing forms with contour lines, and “painterly” to describe art representing forms with color and tonal relationships that are not strongly delineated. In general, Renaissance painting is linear, while Baroque painting tends to be painterly.
Rockmore’s paintings combine both styles, often with surprising successful results; in the best of his works, the one style not only reinforces the other, but does so in a manner that knits together and enlivens the composition as a whole. Yet examination of his recent works reveals that although Rockmore can work comfortably and well with both modes, he often destroys a well-painted passage in the painterly style by combining ore overlaying it with a poorly painted passage in the linear one.
One representative work, “Harlequinade,” shows the different degrees of refinement with which the artist characteristically handles the two styles. In typical Rockmore fashion, the painting portrays a celebratory scene with sinister overtones. A large harlequin, dressed in motley, is surrounded by a crowd of children costumed as animals. Yet far from appearing happy, the harlequin wears an exhausted expression on his shadowed face. More surprisingly, the “children” - as this viewer began to believe after studying them - might be visiting creatures from another world (one strongly resembles E.T.)
Some of the figures in the crowd are rendered in a painterly fashion as irregularly shaped patches of filmy color. This treatment creates a convincing impression of texture, luminosity and depth. By contrast, a number of other figures - in particular two figures costumed as an elephant and a pig - originally were rendered in this convincing painterly style, but then were overlaid with crudely drawn descriptive lines and markings in black.
The lines and markings may have been included to give the imagery necessary focus. However, they make the painting look amateurish and cause the artist to appear less talented than he actually is. Demonstrating that Rockmore is capable of smoother and more convincing lines are a number of gracefully painted curves in the background of “Harlequinade.” These may represent balloon strings if we understand the background figures to be costumed children, or antennae if we understand them to be visiting extraterrestrials.
In at least one work, “Magician’s Silhouette,” Rockmore combines the linear and painterly approaches in a much more cohesive fashion. This acrylic on paper portrays a number of black, silhouetted figures and animals floating through an empty sky. The painting’s sprightly, pattern-like composition brings to mind works by Joan Miro.
The silhouetted figures and animals are not evenly colored or opaque but are marked by interior brushstrokes and gradations in tone. Indeed, so expressive is the brushwork that some of the animals - particularly the birds - suggest Oriental calligraphy.
By combining expressive brushwork with sharply delineated silhouettes in this work, Rockmore synthesizes painterly and linear qualities in a manner that shows off his talent to advantage. Were he to unify all of his art in this way, he would certainly be a painter to watch.
Photo caption: “Magician’s Silhouette” by Noel Rockmore, on exhibit at the Posselt-Baker Gallery