At first glance, this week’s cover, “Smarties” by Brookhaven artist Barry Rockwell, is a well-drafted painting of legendary physicist and North Forker Albert Einstein. A longer look finds the scientist to be holding a small package of Smarties candy—and the artist’s wry wit is revealed.
The piece is emblematic of Rockwell’s larger body of work featuring humorous juxtapositions of historical figures and/or famous works of art with product packaging. Take for example his reproduction of a 16th century corridor portrait of doomed queen Anne Boleyn, an Oh Henry! chocolate bar in her hand. Considering her husband (and the man who ordered her execution) was King Henry VIII, the joke is clear—and quite droll.
Other paintings include an iconic Frida Kahlo self-portrait with a bag of Fritos corn chips, a zaftig Botero nude dressing behind a tub of Ben & Jerry’s “Chunky Monkey” ice cream, and a wild-eyed Beethoven, furiously writing music while staring at a pile of dirty dishes and a bottle of Joy dish detergent. (See more paintings in slideshow below!)
A former advertising illustrator, Rockwell is a master draftsman and a sharp humorist who puts his years of commercial experience to good use in the realm of fine art. Over the last decade he has spoofed da Vinci, Rousseau, Dali, Klimt and a host of masters, along with sundry famous faces.
“Smarties” is not his first Einstein painting.
You’ve painted Einstein at least twice before.
I know I’ve done Einstein with Marshmallow Fluff and Smarties, of course—I don’t know if I can think of another one, but there may be one out there.
So, Smarties is an obvious connection there, but what was the connection with the Fluff?
Einstein may be the opposite of “Fluff.”
Some of your paintings spoof artists, others are more about the historical figure. Do you generally find yourself choosing one or the other more, or is it better when they intersect?
It would be nice if they intersected more often. Things pop in, they come up—whatever inspires me at the moment. It’s difficult to say whether I’ve done more artists or more products.
How did you start doing these particular pieces?
I had bought an old house in Northport and I needed something to go over the fireplace, and I was into doing portraits in my spare time. I was also working on a Kellogg’s account at the time and they were famous for All-Bran, so I did this sort of primitive, naïve style of this maybe Quaker-looking fellow with a bowl of All-Bran and the package, and everybody sort of liked that…I left that hanging over the fireplace
Then when computers came in and I found the advertising business a bit more difficult to catch up with, I started to do a lot of illustration work, probably about 20 years ago. I looked at this painting and thought, you know, I already have this sort of background in products through advertising, and maybe this was a shtick I could get into, so I carried on.
I went into doing the Fruit Loops and the Animal Crackers, and they seemed rather successful and people seemed to like them and buy them, and away we went.
You have a lot of things people can connect to, nostalgically or whether it be a figure… you know, Frida Kahlo for Frida Kahlo fans. You have a lot for people to grab onto, which is fun.
Sometimes it’s difficult…I got a commission from a lawyer who wanted a painting of a Supreme Court justice, and he wanted to connect it with his favorite drink, which was Mountain Dew. It was trying to figure out how to put these two things together and make the connection. Fortunately, I came up with a title, which was “Dew Process.”
If it’s not a commission, do you find yourself smacked with inspiration, or do you tend to sit and flip through art history books and look at products or whatever and try to come up with ideas, or is it more like, you happen to be looking at a painting of Anne Boleyn and then say, “Oh, God, of course—the Oh Henry! candy bar!”
Yeah, sometimes it happens like that, or…I think I had done something really stupid one time and my wife came over—I think it was just Halloween or something and we had leftover candies there—and she threw a Smarties at me and said, “Maybe these will help?” And then Einstein came into my mind, and you got that painting (this week’s cover).
You’re sort of from a long tradition of commercial artists crossing over and adapting their skills into fine art. When did you start working as a painter versus being in advertising?
Years ago when computers were making their inroads to the advertising world; I found I wasn’t adept at making a connection to computers too well.
Were a lot of the old guard going out in the industry at that time?
Yeah, but a lot of my colleagues were able to adapt and go onto the computer, and I think they’re still working at it. I found it very awkward. I thought, if I have to do this, there’s got to be something better.
Tell me about this Einstein painting.
There was that actual incident when the Smarties were presented to me in a moment of stupidity, and I thought, you know, maybe I could use these for something? It wasn’t too far a reach to go right to the smartest man of the last century, and I came up with Einstein and the Smarties and put them together. It was an easy image to do. Einstein is all over the place, so I didn’t have any trouble finding a photograph of him to work from.
Anything coming up next, any new shows?
I just got a commission from someone who has one of my Conquisto-Doritoes.
Are you open to showing out here again?
The this point pretty much all my work is spoken for before it goes out. I never find myself with a dozen paintings, saying, “Ah, I have to find a gallery for this stuff.” Generally everything I paint has a place to go.
That’s not a bad problem to have.
No, I just wish I could paint a little faster.
Visit barryrockwell.com to see more work by Barry Rockwell. The artist accepts commissions and he is currently showing in Martha’s Vineyard, MA and Scottsdale, AZ.