Suellen Rocca with Curly Head, 1967. Photograph: Chicago Sun-Times, Bob Kotalik. Courtesy of Pentimenti Productions.
Chicago native Suellen Rocca earned her bachelor’s degree from the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) in 1964. Rocca has identified Ray Yoshida as the most important instructor of her SAIC career, in addition to other sources of inspiration that came from her personal world. While an undergraduate student, Rocca married a jeweler and became intrigued by the tactile image of rows of rings in the jewelry shop, as well as photographs of gemstones and settings in jewelry catalogs. Inspired by these images, Rocca developed a distinct visual vocabulary—including diamond rings, palm trees, hats, and small dancing figures—to represent wealth and satisfaction. In both oil paintings and intaglio prints, she employed her visual language as pictographs, presenting objects in tidy rows situated in a flat space similar to the catalogs she pored over. She also made assemblages of the same images scattered in chaos.
The content of Rocca’s work is often read as conveying a specific viewpoint likened to a teenager’s naive fantasies and desires. As her work matured, Chicago’s cultural commentators noted that Rocca’s iconography had been funneled through a lens of memory, resulting in images that spun from dreams into nightmares of prescribed feminine token objects. Like her fellow Imagist Christina Ramberg, Rocca was greatly influenced by consumer culture and beauty advertisements for wigs, hair extensions, and make-up. Rocca later observed that she focused on this imagery in order to study “this vulnerable market [of young women], the insecure half-adult, made anxious to create and define an identity patterned on the staggering inanity of film and television idols and fictions.” But more than mere consumer appropriation, Rocca prefers to see her imagery as expressive of her personal history.
In 1966, Rocca exhibited with the Hairy Who at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), along with James Falconer, Art Green, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, and Karl Wirsum. The success of this initial HPAC exhibition led to two additional Hairy Who exhibitions there (1967 and 1968), as well as installations at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1993, while continuing to maintain her studio practice, Rocca became a program director at Hull House, a historic social-settlement house on Chicago’s near west side. Today, Rocca serves as the Curator and Director of Exhibitions for the Department of Art at Elmhurst College, outside of Chicago, where she also teaches studio classes in painting, drawing, and design.
Night Light for Little Girl (1969)
Oil on canvas with ruffle
Inspired by the idealized imagery in advertisements, catalogs, and school readers, Suellen Rocca developed her own pictorial language in the form of glyphs. Much like the hieroglyphics floating in the Egyptian art she observed during her visits to the Art Institute of Chicago, Rocca’s icons of purses, palm trees, crossed legs, diamond rings, bananas, and dancing figurines punctuate her paintings. These glyphs became the building blocks of her work and were often associated with notions of romance and feminine happiness promised in the popular culture of the times: look beautiful, attract a man, get a sparkling diamond ring, and live happily ever after.
In 1969, when she made this painting, Rocca was exhibiting in shows around the United States, while also a working artist and the mother of a four-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl. The children would take long afternoon naps which allowed her to paint in her studio. Rocca used the imagery from her children’s books and in the case of Night Light for Little Girl, she painted the silhouette of a lamb lamp commonly found in 1960s nursery rooms. The lamb is rendered in soft, dream-like, pastel tones and is crowned with a lamp shade adorned with a cartoon figure of a yawning little girl in a modest blue dress and curly blonde locks. The painting itself is bordered with a ruffled, blue ribbon, as if created for a child’s bedroom.
In Night Light for Little Girl, Rocca pairs the sweet dreams of childhood with the realities of womanhood. The lamp is surrounded by clouds, some with a floating bare foot, dropping yellow and blue drops of water—reminiscent of acid rain—and small, cartoon penises. Rocca often paired a hard, phallic object, such as a finger or palm tree, with a soft counterpart such as a cloud or tuft of hair. The painting is a witty commentary on the prescribed realities of bedtime for the modern woman: the innocent days of lullabies and bedtime stories under the soft glow of a lamb lamp are no more.