Elmhurst College: An Artist’s Evolution

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An Artist’s Evolution

Decades after Suellen Rocca helped upend Chicago’s art world, a new exhibition offers a look at the “lovely, timeless quality” of her recent work.

Suellen Rocca may be best known as one of the members of the Hairy Who, the legendary group of 1960s-era Chicago visual artists whose work was as surreal and irreverent as their collective name. But Rocca, now curator and director of exhibitions at Elmhurst, didn’t stop there. Long after the Hairy Who ceased exhibiting together, Rocca has continued painting, quietly producing a body of work over several decades that displays her ongoing artistic evolution.

An exhibition in Chicago is highlighting Rocca’s work from the decades after she made her mark with the Hairy Who. “Focus 4: Four Solo Exhibitions” at the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery features 25 drawings and paintings by Rocca, from the early 1980s to the present. The exhibition runs from February 25 to June 21, 2013. The gallery is in the James R. Thompson Center, 100 West Randolph Street in Chicago’s Loop.

“She has been doing remarkable work in recent years, but it hasn’t had the exposure it deserves,” said Doug Stapleton, assistant curator of art at the gallery and curator of the Rocca show. “People should know about this work.”    

Rocca remains proud to be associated with the Hairy Who, but said that she welcomed the opportunity to show some of her more recent work to a wider audience.

“I know some of my work from that earlier period is better known, but that feels a little far away from me right now,” she said. “My work from the 1980s and since, I’m still very connected to. I continue to work with some of the same imagery.”

Rocca creates jeweled, brilliantly colored images, often endowed with the enigmatic symbolism of dreamscapes. Stapleton said that, in contrast to Rocca’s earlier work, which was often related to themes from popular culture, “her more recent work has a lovely, timeless quality about it.” He pointed to “Passed,” an oil painting from Elmhurst’s collection that is included in the State of Illinois Museum Chicago Gallery show, as an example of the way Rocca deploys figures amid archetypal images, including birds and boats. ”She has developed this personal vocabulary of images, many of which seem to come from dreams.”

Rocca is a 1964 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which also produced most of the other artists later associated with the Hairy Who. The group first began exhibiting their work together at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center in the mid-1960s. That work—brightly colored, gleefully insubordinate and often weirdly humorous—upended many of the conventions of the more staid precincts of Chicago’s art establishment. Rocca, fresh from school, welcomed the sense of community she found in the collective.

“I was very fortunate. There was this group of us that emerged at the same time and we were able to visit each other’s studios and talk and exchange ideas,” she said. “That was so important.”

The group also helped demolish gender divides. The Hairy Who shows included work by at least two women—Rocca and Gladys Nilsson—at a time when the art world was still largely dominated by men. But Rocca said that her gender was not much of an issue as she made her way as an artist.

“I never felt like I was treated any differently [than male artists],” she said.

As curator and director of exhibitions at Elmhurst, Rocca now oversees the College’s acclaimed art collection. Rich in work by artists of the Chicago Imagist movement—a group that includes such Hairy Who alums as Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt and Rocca herself, as well as Ed Paschke, Roger Brown and others—the collection is considered an unparalleled resource. “The best single overview of art from 1966 to 1985 in any public institution,” art critic James Yood has said of the collection. And appropriately enough for a collection that includes artists noted for their casual iconoclasm, the work is housed not in some isolated gallery, but in the school’s library, amid the daily bustle of students chatting, studying for exams and hurriedly completing class papers.

Rocca is understandably proud of the collection, but she bristles when it is called a hidden gem.

“It is a gem, but I am doing everything I can to make it less hidden,” she laughs. “I think more and more people are learning about it.” She conducts tours for Elmhurst students and visitors and hosts events to lure art-lovers to the campus. On April 27, at DePaul University’s Art Museum, she will help lead a symposium on humor in art that will focus on work from the Elmhurst collection. The event is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Rocca said her dual roles as curator and working artist inform each other.

“I find that when I’m putting an exhibit together or installing something in the collection, it’s very much like when I’m in the studio and making choices about pieces I’m working on,” she said. “It’s so much about relationships. It’s not simply that these two things will look good together because they have this color. There are so many variables. Content. Form. You put two pieces together and you hope they start a conversation.”

So how does it feel for a curator like Rocca to have her own work curated by Stapleton for her exhibition at the State of Illinois Museum Chicago Gallery?

“Of course, I was very honored and excited that he selected my work, but also a little nervous about giving this over to someone else,” she confessed. “But he has had such thoughtful and good insights about my work. He has given a lot of time and thought to the work. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he does it.”

The Chicago show is not Rocca’s only current exhibition. Two of her paintings hang at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, as part of the State Department’s Art in the Embassies program.

The State of Illinois Museum Chicago Gallery will host a reception for the Focus 4 exhibition on March 8, 2013, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

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