New York

Suellen Rocca, Departure, 2012, oil on canvas, 30 × 30".

Suellen Rocca, Departure, 2012, oil on canvas, 30 × 30".

Suellen Rocca

In art, as in dreams, the everyday often finds itself transposed into the realms of the symbolic, the archetypal. Personal is the word Suellen Rocca (1943–2020) preferred for the simple enough stuff that appears throughout her paintings and drawings: Fish, birds, weeds, boats, chairs, houses, and more populated the twenty-eight works in this moving show, including three oil paintings and five drawings the artist made in the last year of her life. In the mid- to late 1960s, when the young Rocca made her debut alongside the other Chicago-based trickster talents who called themselves the Hairy Who, her lively compositions resembled catalogues, or even ads, for a fantastical visual language that she assembled from commonplace things. Palm trees balancing on fingertips; hands, legs, and female bodies erupting in excited lines; bananas, question marks, rings, dresses, and ice-cream cones all neatly lined up like hieroglyphs: Rocca seemed to delight in the buzz and spark of strange bedfellows in her mischievous rearrangement of reality’s usual syntax.

Her focus over the years shifted from consuming and engaging the outside world to expressing the one within. Thus she created affecting works of oddball eloquence, refracting something of herself in recurring motifs while at the same time withholding life’s particulars. The visions of fish and female torsos that appeared throughout the works at Matthew Marks Gallery came to Rocca in a dream when she was young, and long served not only as her subjects but also as forms that she continuously mined and metamorphosed. The series of six “Fish Dream Paintings” she made between 2000 and 2012 present female bodies from the neck to just below the breasts, each somehow entwined or embedded with the sea creatures. In one, the figure holds a fish in her arms, which taper to a point where her hands should be; from her breasts, droplets fall—perhaps tears? Milk? In another canvas, a woman’s long arms coil around one another like serpents; in a third, two fish curl up on a chest like a pair of breasts. Union, communion, transformation: Rocca offers up mysterious mystical visions for contemplation. The many-limbed beings of Departure, 2012, and At Sunset, 2013, are lightly reminiscent of the goddess Kali, while the subject of the melancholy Night, 2014, holds birds, a boat, and leafless trees inside itself. Ropes and human arms are slung like dead slugs over the figure, recalling missed lifelines.

Where Rocca’s paintings vibrate and mesmerize, her drawings seethe; they are no less composed but are far looser. Cruelty and pain, more than transcendence or redemption, are present. Untitled, 2020, is a harrowing landscape bisected by a river and littered with beds, chairs, and female figures, most of which are broken. Here, too, no one can help or be helped: The hands that reach down from the clouds can’t touch those that reach up from the water. Double Figure with Fish, 2000, is a foreboding scene, and possibly a Rosetta stone of sorts. A feminine entity cradles three fish in her left arm. The shape of her body, like the verso of a canvas, looks as though it’s reinforced by a system of stretcher bars. At the center of her otherwise empty head, Rocca has drawn a small self-portrait, eyes heavy and staring through glasses as lines radiate out from her scalp. Looming to the right is the subject’s shadowy twin, her skin perforated, holding a fish that’s dead eyed and stiff as a blade. Behind this being is a thicket of loopy script. Standing before this piece, I wondered if the artist had left a message. I recognized letters here and there, or thought I did, but couldn’t parse what, if anything, she’d written. Here were ideas, feelings, spirits, and experiences that could not speak through language but could instead propel line, create shape, permeate this black-and-white world with subterranean muck—and hold us for a moment, neither alive nor dead, but suspended inside the space of art.