The sage and happy sculptor and scholar Peter Rockwell has lived in Rome for decades. On a recent visit to New York two shows made an impression on his fertile and lively mind. One consisted of the drawings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), which illustrate Flemish proverbs, among them Big fish eating little fish. The other was full of ominous striding figures, naked and crushed, by the existentialist modern Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). These two artists couldnt be more different in time, style, nationality and outlook. But they are both frightening as well as mild, and probe the joys, fears and hidden drives
of humans just as Rockwell does.
He has always had a predilection for hewing monsters. They allowed him to go in any direction, to be free of any conventional style, and also gave him the freedom to elaborate on the disturbing undercurrents of human nature he found mirrored in the capitals of the mediaeval churches he so assiduously studied. His host of mischievous hobgoblins was witchy, foreboding and hilarious, angular or writhing. What he does here, in his new work, is more precarious, wilder and milder, and much more mysterious.
Giacometti limbs and Flemish stories form and narrative are wittily intertwined in this array of sliding, slithering and swimming underwater things, a new world of mermaids, of wicked, jolly mer-people.
We have a little man with a homburg hat trailing his fishtail, like the Walrus or the Carpenter on the evening beach in Alice in Wonderland; a stalking creature on sturdy legs with a star mask; a mermaid nursing her female centaur baby; another one reading a book; naiads hovering around a sailors skull; a peaceful creature placidly illustrating What fish do on
dry land; tragicomic mer-people rambunctious or serene, as all life around us.
Rockwell is lucky to have grown up in an artists family, so that he gained insight and experience in art early. But he also made himself go through intense schooling, travelling to quarries and sculpture sites all over the world. There are spindrifts of archaic Greek and of Roman art in his mind, he has discovered detail no-one else has (his books written on stone-carving techniques testify to this). Few have put mediaeval art upside-down and right-side-up as he has done with such gusto (as the capitals on his church commissions in the Veneto and his commissions for public fountains and gargoyles for cathedrals in the US so magnificently illustrate). Few have such a respect for any kind of good art, from the Easter Islands through Hogarth to De Kooning.
But Rockwell has no use for the intellectual games of today. He is naughty; he slyly juggles the balance between popular and sophisticated art. Mischievously and humbly hiding his expertise, he fashions disarmingly simple but marvellous visions of waterfolk, with echoes through the ages. If you give up your preconceptions and follow him you can share his amusement, wonder and freedom, and enter into a stark and funny world, a fantasy as real as reality.
Peter Rockwell: Monsters and other creatures. Recent sculptures in bronze and terracotta. 10-27 Feb. Tyler School, Temple University,
Lungotevere A. da Brescia 15, tel. 063202808. Mon-Fri 10.00-19.00.
Picture: An array of slithering underwater things populate Rockwells new world of tragicomic mer-people.