Decades before the invention of the emoji, artist Suellen Rocca began communicating via endearing, cartoonish signs. In her drawings and paintings from the 1960s, simple pictographs of rings, palm trees, hats, dancing couples, bananas, and ice cream cones help to obliquely reference her life as a young woman in Chicago.
Over the past six decades, Rocca has maintained a fluid, dreamlike style, while her iconography has matured. On a recent Thursday afternoon at Matthew Marks Gallery on West 22nd Street, the artist and I discussed the meanings and inspirations behind her pictorial language. The gallery recently opened an exhibition of 27 of her drawings, spanning 1981 through 2017. In contrast to the zany energy of the 1960s work, this show reveals a darker, more psychologically astute aspect to Rocca’s practice. The color here is minimal and muted. With pictures alternately joyous, strange, and fearsome, her oeuvre offers a singular perspective on youth, motherhood, anxiety, and loss.
Born in 1943, Rocca rose to prominence when she exhibited, from 1966 through 1969, with the Hairy Who. This group of Chicago-based artists, who all attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also included Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Falconer, Art Green, and Karl Wirsum. They shared a bright, surreal, figurative aesthetic, which had as much in common with comics as it did high culture.
During the same decade, New York minimalists were veering toward austerity. These Chicago artists, in contrast, offered colorful maximalism. Even their shows adopted a carnivalistic atmosphere—the Hairy Who explicitly called their self-published catalogues “comic books,” mounted flowered linoleum on the walls, and displayed their own collections of objects (Rocca, apparently, still collects fortune-cookie fortunes).
In the 1960s, Rocca was particularly interested in hieroglyphs. An untitled drawing from 1965 features rows and columns of common symbols: windows, dice, stars, question marks, hot dogs, heads. Like an Egyptian tablet made over by a mid-century artist, the work tells a contemporary story in a millennia-old format. The words “-cupid” and “-stupid” appear in speech bubbles at the top, while just “-cupid” remains at the bottom. This cryptic love story (if one reads left to right, top to bottom) apparently ends well; the viewer might consider both the fun and mystery of youthful dating and its inherent uncertainties. As images of jewelry begin to appear further down the page, shades of the traditional romance narrative—its gift-giving customs, its movement toward marriage—emerge.
A painting from the same year, entitled Bare Shouldered Beauty, divides groups of pictures into a gridded format, recalling comic strips and storyboards. Again, women’s figures appear, as do a dancing couple and elements of quaint, mid-century domesticity: a pet dog, televisions, furniture. Rocca’s work often has a narrative quality, though she insists that she never sets out to tell a story. Her process of mark-making is, she said, “more automatic or unconscious.” (Rocca has said that her work has an autobiographical element, but she also believes this is true for most artists—whether or not they admit it.)
Throughout the 1960s, she made a series of painted handbags, as well. They connoted female sexuality and turned a common object from a woman’s wardrobe into art. In the earlier works at Matthew Marks, Rocca revisits the bag’s shape, but to a very different effect. Two 1982 drawings, Neatest Garbage and Tale of the Two Legged Bunny, depict potentially treacherous containers. In the former, a brown zigzag-patterned trash bag oozes gray material from its dark holes. Beneath, two jagged-toothed dogs enhance the sense of menace. According to Rocca, the bag is a metaphor: Though we try to contain things that are harmful, sometimes they seep out. “You could say this is about danger,” she said. “Or imaginary danger. Not so much actual physical danger as the things we imagine.”
In the latter drawing, a mosaiced hand reaches into a pouch that contains a car, sharp knives, bugs, the word “poison,” and, indeed, bunnies. The word “kisses,” scrawled in cursive across the hand, offers a contrasting sweetness. “The hand is reaching in there and what’s going to happen? It’s going to encounter all these scary things,” Rocca explained. The viewer doesn’t see the impending harm, but rather the moment leading up to it.
Yet tenderness returns in later pieces. Rocca works on her paintings and drawings at the same time, her ideas and icons evolving in each new page or canvas. After completing a series, she adopts a new set of images to explore and rework. In the late 1980s, Rocca created a series responding to her mother’s death. Astronavigate (1989) features two birds lying in crescent beds, apparently among the stars. The drawing connects to a 1988 painting, which Rocca explicitly called Passed an almost Pointillist rendering of a celestial scene, with another bird lying in another crescent bed at the center.
During the 1990s, Rocca dreamt of a fish nursing. She decided to draw the scene exactly as it had appeared to her. Though she’d always been inspired by what she saw in her sleep, she’d never used the content of a dream as an explicit, ready-made image. In Fish Dream and Fish Dream Two (both 1997), a fish suckles at a woman’s breast. Even stranger: Nails protrude from one of the fish’s bellies, and one of the women appears to be made of rope. The drawings vaguely reference motherhood—Rocca gave birth to two children in the 1960s—though she keeps the work strange and surprising enough to defy easy interpretation (much like dreams themselves).
For most of her career, Rocca has maintained a studio at home. As a young mother, she could easily run between personal and family spaces, stealing time to continue her practice. This intersection of creative and domestic life has always enriched her work, giving it an intimate and moving quality. Rocca pointed out one work, Teta (2012), which celebrates the connection between both spheres. The drawing repeats the shape of a teddy bear against different backdrops, framed within a grid. “This was my grandson’s teddy, Teta,” she told me. “It was his little love object.” They used to play hide-and-go-seek with the cloth bear. One of the patterns, behind the figure, derives from Rocca’s couch.
Even though her kids are long grown, the way children understand and process the world has stuck with her. Her oeuvre has always considered how language and images connect at a fundamental level. Before they learn to read words, of course, toddlers learn to read pictures. Rocca keeps children’s pre-readers in her studio, which teach the pre-literate to distinguish between related and unrelated images (she gave the example of a depiction of three men, one wearing his hat at a different angle, leaving the reader to point out the slight divergence). “When you look at a drawing or a painting, you’re reading the image,” said Rocca. “At least in the kind of work that I do.”
– Alina Cohen