Anna Noelle Rockwell:

By Erik Davis

Intense, unsettling, and boldly composed, Anna Noelle Rockwell's paintings radiate a sense of ominous implication and Gothic discontent. Drawing from influences as diverse as horror movies, haut couture, and the rural nostalgia of traditional equine painting, she has crafted images that roil with conflict and unspoken threat. Her horses explode with expressive power, while her human subjects hover eerie and still. Nonetheless, both sets of images express Rockwell's concern with the balance between restless, even chaotic energy and the dominating constraints of form. This thematic dynamic, perfectly captured in the tense symbiosis of horse and rider, also informs her most consistent stylistic trait: the disciplined pairing of forcefully defined, almost allegorical figures with abstract, dissolving backgrounds that undermine any sense of solidity or coherent reference.

Rockwell herself is familiar with moving between worlds. Though born in Laguna Beach, California in 1968, she moved around so much once her parents divorced that it's tough to say she's from anywhere at all. An outsider in high school -- she was asked to leave one Santa Barbara private school for violating the dress code and another for producing disturbing art Rockwell moved to New York at age 16 to attend the Parsons School of Design. Rockwell also became a fascinated habitué of the city's darkside demimonde of sybarites and fetishists, and wound up modeling for several prominent photographers who probed the arty edge of the fashion underground.

Leaving New York, Rockwell studied painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute before her wanderlust drew her to Asia. After trekking in Nepal, she returned to school, earning a degree in anthropology and fine arts from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. For her bachelor's thesis, entitled "Perforating the Soul," Rockwell researched the then-emerging world of ethnic tattooing and body modification that came to be known as the "Modern Primitive" movement. Her research helped focus her artistic concerns as well, and when she returned to San Francisco in 1995, her work in sculpture, performance and painting began to extend and twist the meanings and emotional dynamics of these potent but marginal subcultural practices.

Back in California, Rockwell also took up riding horses for the first time in a decade. Rockwell had first fallen in love with horses as a young girl, and later showed hunters and jumpers in high school. As an adult, Rockwell returned to riding as a form of psychic escape and emotional healing . Committing herself to a rigorous schedule of dressage training, Rockwell also found that the sport reflected her ongoing concerns with discipline, conflict, and the power dynamics of domination and submission. Riding also heightened her appreciation for the process of interpretation. Honing an intuitive relationship with horses allowed the artist to explore and deepen her own forms of nonverbal communication. Though Rockwell had been sketching horses since her teenage years, the creatures in her drawings and paintings increasingly became mirrors of her own emotional life -- self-portraiture, she says wryly, "without having to show my face."

Rockwell's exact and expressive equine images also drew interest from within the riding community. Though the majority of her buyers remain non-equestrians, Rockwell has been commissioned to produce horse portraits and has sold reproductions of her work at tack shops and equestrian gatherings. Far from tarnishing her more sophisticated aspirations as an artist, Rockwell's success within this community underscores her sensitivity to the pleasure and power of equine images, as well as the expressive boldness and accuracy she brings to her work. By moving her horses into non-equine contexts in works like Jumping Purgatory, Rockwell taps their concrete, almost fetishistic energy and channels it in new and startling directions. This process culminates with her Four Horsemen of Apocalypse series, which uses the formal and symbolic power of the horse to probe the pervasive but unfocused sense of dread that underlies our times.

By unleashing such totemic figures into broiling spaces of abstraction, Rockwell also suggests our fundamental loss of ground. The disappearance of the landscapes that traditionally accompany equine images speaks to the loss of the homestead, of the melancholic rupture of continuity, tradition, and inheritance. This nostalgic disruption is the subject of Rockwell's creepy The Horror of the Family, a series of portraits based on photographs of unidentified relatives drawn from both her maternal and paternal lines. Rockwell has compared her art to pushing and pulling the "skins" of paint, and the waxy flesh on these uncanny figures hangs loosely of their skeletons, as if they are beginning to undergo the sort of diseased metamorphosis that Rockwell so enjoys in horror films. The pressure Rockwell puts on her figures is also pressure on figuration itself. As with Frances Bacon, persons begins to dissolve into ghosts, or even further: into intimations of apocalypse.


Erik Davis is the author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. He writes about popular culture for a variety of magazines and journals.


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