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Rocky in Retrospect 

He was always there but now he's not. Gone are the days when Noel Rockmore, Mike Stark and Ruthie the Duck Girl haunted the streets of the Vieux Carre, each a walking microcosm of what made the Quarter what it was: a breeding ground of eccentricity, easygoing bonhomie and plain old-fashioned craziness. But that play is over, its curtains closed for good. Now the Quarter of condos and T-shirt shops is increasingly a shadow of its former self. Ruthie is in a rest home; Noel "the mad artist" Rockmore died in 1995, and his friend and benefactor, Mike Stark -- the rotund, soft-spoken, muumuu-wearing hippie preacher with the flowing red hair and beard died not long after. All seemed to fade away with the millennium.

Rockmore was a case. Certifiably manic, he was a fixture at Johnny White's where he downed his lithium with beer or whatever was available. Moody and predictably unpredictable, he was hard to get along with, yet there were always women -- lots of women -- some of whom burn candles for him even now. All in all, it's amazing that he lived as long as he did, finally expiring from the effects of his cumulative excesses at age 67. And now Bryant Gallery, which had represented him throughout his career here, gives us a chance to reflect on his legend in this In Retrospect show. In theory, it's a fine idea, but most of the work just happens to be from the 1980s, when those long years of alcoholism were starting to take a toll on his formidable talents, so the work, while interesting, is not exactly representative of Rocky at his best.

Craziness and drunkenness aside, I think the real problem was that he had been a child prodigy as a musician and artist, and life can be tricky when recognition comes so early. Rockmore reached what for most artists would have been a career pinnacle when he was given a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1952 at the tender age of 24. His paintings were shown at the Whitney Museum a few years later in 1958. In 1962, he moved from his native New York to the French Quarter, where his best local work was done over the following 15 years, work that is essential to any balanced view of what this archetypal "tortured genius" was all about, but which lingers only as an echo in his 1980s stuff.

No, the '80s were Rocky's gauzy years, rife with pastel colors and vertiginous, misdirected sentimentality, much of which might be vapid if it weren't so zany. Even so, some glimmerings of surreal, visionary lucidity appear here and there. Voodoo Queen, his personal favorite, is an eerie phantasmagoria of strange figures and odd structures. Its female central figure seems to conjure a humanoid snake out of thin air, as floating, demonic forms dance across the canvas and it really does seem to possess some kind of strange magic under the madness.

Similarly spooky and surreal is The Caesarian, a melange of freakish figures, bodies and doctors, of birds, shadows, grids and a maze of industrial ductwork. Haunting, surreal portraits were always Rockmore's forte, and jazz archivist and violinist Bill Russell was a perpetual favorite subject. Here the ancient-seeming, lanky yet gnome-like Russell appears in a typical juxtaposition, sitting stoically in his chair, cradling his fiddle as a spectral nude redhead materializes behind him like a ghost of Storyville resting her shapely fingers on his slumping shoulders.

As peculiar as those paintings are, Rockmore's Egyptian series is much harder to fathom. Three Egyptian Women, a view of three nubile nudes playing musical instruments is about as realistic as Rockmore ever got. It is gracefully painted, yet curiously vapid, like a stylized illustration from a vintage men's magazine. King Tut With Lungs, a slightly cartoonish head of Tut with a cross-section of human lungs juxtaposed below, looks more like the result of out-of-control blood chemistry than any coherent attempt to make sense -- even gothic or surreal sense -- in paint. And those pastel, cotton-candy colors -- yikes! Well, OK, In Retrospect is a mixed blessing at best, but at least it's an attempt to keep his memory alive, and for all his faults, Rockmore was an original, a formidable ancestor spirit in wraparound shades haunting the French Quarter and the art scene at large.

click to enlarge While the In Retrospect exhibition doesn't capture the late Noel Rockmore at his best -- focusing on his 1980s work -- his personal favorite Voodoo Queen shows a strange magic under the madness.
  • While the In Retrospect exhibition doesn't capture the late Noel Rockmore at his best -- focusing on his 1980s work -- his personal favorite Voodoo Queen shows a strange magic under the madness.
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