Suellen Rocca
Suellen Rocca, installation view Secession 2020, photo: Peter Mochi

Suellen Rocca

July 3 – November 8, 2020

With Suellen Rocca’s installation in the Grafisches Kabinett, the Secession is pleased and grateful to present the last exhibition the artist conceived herself, which has been realized posthumously with great respect for her work. New paintings and drawings are presented together with paintings from recent years in a setting composed of a folding screen and a simple bed that cites Rocca’s pictorial vocabulary. Presenting the actual objects next to their figurative representations blurs the lines between exhibition and pictorial space and supports the sensation of virtually being able to step into the pictures’ landscapes.

Suellen Rocca enjoyed a long and distinguished artistic career, which began in the 1960s as a member of the Chicago-based group Hairy Who. Their six members were closely associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and labeled as Chicago Imagists who, as opposed to prevailing trends on the East Coast, bucked both the austerity of Minimalism and Pop Art’s cool detachment to develop a grotesque figurative aesthetic influenced by Art Brut and Surrealism. Rocca’s oeuvre is characterized by a distinct personal iconography, which she continuously expanded in tune with and reflecting transitions in her private life. This pictorial grammar is apparent in her figurative drawings and paintings and draws on repetition, the use of a grid, text and icons. It is informed and inspired by a broad range of visual culture, from Egyptian hieroglyphs to Surrealism, indigenous art, pre-reader illustrations and illustrated catalogs as well as comics.

At the center of two expressive, dynamic paintings with vibrant, contrasting colors—Departure (2012) and Sunset (2013)—is a torso amid a watery realm inhabited by fish and serpents. Connected by flowing lines, the torso blends in with its respective surrounding. While the images appear pulsating, at the same time the symbolic language suggests things are in a state of flux, slipping away. The palette in the painting Night (2014), which can be regarded as a “hinge” work, has turned from vibrant to dark. Again, a torso fills the canvas; its shape, however, no longer indicates any connection to the exterior world but, as in Rocca’s latest paintings too, instead describes a closed, self-contained form that serves as a reservoir for a sort of inner landscape. Here, the image may suggest a kind of arrival, with birds sitting in a tree that branches out like the circulatory system above an empty boat resting in the crook of the arm.

Suellen Rocca’s latest paintings (which, due to the artist’s unexpected death, remained untitled) repeat the self-contained, closed form of the torso, the arms folded in front in a meditative pose. One picture seems to address unease and turbulence with icons of beds, chairs and other generic domestic furniture scattered wildly on a pale green torso set against a background of clouds with hands reaching out of them. In contrast, the pink torso in another picture offers a home for bodies and empty beds enclosed in womb-like bubbles that are placed out alternately and evenly within the body’s bounds, forming a repetitive pattern. The painting radiates a sense of peace and tranquility, almost as if a circle were completed. Subdued colors enhance the quiescent tenor of these static images.

Reflecting different conditions and the transitions in her life—happiness as well as challenges and hardships she faced and embraced—Rocca’s pictorial grammar made several transformations. Her colorful early work is populated with signature elements like palm trees, dancing couples, purses and jewelry and is an expression of a joyful and care-free period. While in the 1960s, the artist focused on romantic feelings, female sexuality, and domestic life, her view successively turned more and more inward. In the last decade, especially, a period of introspection, Suellen Rocca showed a great interest in the unconscious and included dream imagery in her work that symbolizes different states of being. Presenting her most recent paintings next to ones from the past decade, a significant change is noticeable in the pictures’ grammar, mood, and palette once again.

Alongside of her show, Suellen Rocca also drafted a publication with additional drawings and sketches, published by Secession according to the artist’s idea as a fan-folded book.

Suellen Rocca was born in Chicago in 1943 and died in March 2020. Besides her artistic practice, she was director of exhibitions and curator of the Elmhurst College Art Collection in Elmhurst, Illinois.