Daisy Rockwell’s show, at Twelve Gates Arts in February, presented a series of sharp, lively, and insightful portraits of political figures ranging from Jacqueline Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The show was accompanied by the launch of her new book, The Little Book of Terror, a collection of paintings and essays on the Global War on Terror and its complicated network of participants. The book critiques the simplistic nature of this war’s portrayal in the media, calling for a more complex vision of the global political situation. Rockwell’s work draws on her extensive academic background; she received her PhD in South Asian Literature from The University of Chicago, where she also headed the Center for South Asia Studies.
Working mainly from news images gathered from the internet, Rockwell portrays international political figures in private, casual situations. “Quiet Stroll,” for example, shows Jackie Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru walking arm in arm in Washington D.C., Nehru holding a bunch of wild flowers. Another piece, “Everything is Communicating,” portrays Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, chatting on matching red telephones. Rockwell transforms the black and white news photographs, which are used to illustrate an official, neatly delineated story of adversaries and allies, into brilliantly colored, idiosyncratic incarnations of people. The delicate quality of her acrylic and watercolor paintings reinforces the realness of the figures she is depicting; there is a sense of warmth in their stylized figures that is not present in any documentary news photograph we might see.
What first struck me about the show at Twelve Gates was the small, intimate scale of the works, their careful arrangement, and the variety of their framing. Some paintings were inscribed in circles, evoking the tradition of Indian or Persian miniature paintings. Many of the mats were jewel-like colors—fuschia, sap green, cadmium orange. These touches, along with the use of gold sprinkles and washes of paint behind some of the figures, all bring to mind icon paintings. Particularly interesting to this end is Rockwell’s family history; her grandfather, Norman Rockwell, is famous for elevating ordinary, prototypically down-home American scenes to the status of icons. Daisy’s work, on the other hand, puts the icons of political, cultural, and religious life into raw human scenes that bring us closer to those depicted and complicate the media’s cut-and-dry narrative of global politics.