BENNINGTON, Vt. -- Daisy Rockwell may have been born the granddaughter of an iconic American illustrator who celebrated traditional family values, but she has grown into a 21st-century citizen who embraces digital media and its culture of personalities, politics and 24/7 news cycles.
A scholar of South Asian literature who is fluent in Urdu, she turned her hand to art-making after an academic career shift several years ago. Untrained and seeking inspiration, she looked not to landscapes, still lifes or even her own imagination, but to Google images, which she mined for news headliners.
It’s a practice she continues in a colorful and amusing, if at times conflicted, exhibition of recent paintings, "The Topless Jihadi and Other Curious Birds," on view through December at the Bennington Museum.
Rockwell’s subjects are contemporary women -- mostly oppressed ones.
Among them are the late pop singer Whitney Houston; the girlfriend of Russian President Vladimir Putin; female criminal suspects; and a Ukrainian feminist group calling itself FEMEN -- the "Topless Jihadi" -- who stage political protests with bared breasts. All are adapted from Internet images she downloads and converts to high-contrast, black-and-white prints, which she uses as references for her mini portraits, most of them less than 10-by-10 inches on backgrounds of bright, flat color.
Although her paintings resemble solarized photos, collages, even graphic novel illustrations, Rockwell insists that is not intentional.
"I could never draw a face 100 different times for a graphic novel," she says.
She likens her acrylic-on-wood-panel pieces, instead, to Mughal miniatures, tiny, gem-like manuscript illustrations produced in South Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries.
In lively, literate, often self-deprecating wall texts, she tells us who the figures are and why she chose them, sometimes carrying words onto the paintings themselves, although in Urdu script unreadable to most viewers.
Rockwell, who lives in North Bennington and is the daughter of artists Jarvis Rockwell of North Adams and Susan Merrill of Stockbridge, sees similarities between her own work and that her grandfather, Norman, who also took subjects from everyday life and used photographs as visual aids.
But while he, operating within the demands of commercial illustration, was adept at storytelling through facial expressions and postures alone, his granddaughter, a gifted writer and linguist at heart, uses words to tell us what can’t be made clear in paint. The photos she uses as visual aids are also limited to ones available through online sources and not ones she orchestrates as her grandfather did with live models and a camera.
The result has viewers straddling two narrative paths-- one visual, one verbal -- that intersect, run parallel and diverge in their need for each other.
Of the paintings that stand most solidly on their own visually, the series "Mugshots" is the most direct and engaging. The anonymous female felons, each shown face forward in a flat graphic style, wear a variety of expressions, some winsome, some woebegone, some defiant, some unreadable. Beyond the title, no words are needed.
Likewise in "Think Pink," which has diverse characters united by one color, two portraits stand out especially. It doesn’t matter that they are writer Paula Broadwell and socialite Jill Kelley, parties to the Gen. David Petraeus infidelity scandal. Their faces have long faded from the news.
But Rockwell frames each within window grids and flat background colors that make satisfying, self-contained compositions.
Too many others -- the Whitney Houston group, for example, and the Putin series with the Russian president in the company of a tiger, swimming with dolphins and bare chested on a horse, while his girlfriend performs gymnastic tricks in undefined space -- leave us adrift without written explanations.
The "Boobz" feminist protest group has some images, like bare-breasted women manhandled by authority figures or a Barbie doll crucified, which speak for themselves. But the texts in Urdu that creep into other "Boobz" compositions make them look like decorative wallpaper.
Rockwell, who posts her art to Flickr, writes the blog Chapati Mystery, paints under the alias Lapata, which she says is Urdu for "missing," or "absconded."
Partly a device to escape her famous name, it has, she said, lately become an unexpected source of worry: Online admirers may think she is actually an Asian artist. It is an identity challenge, like the visual/verbal pathways puzzle, yet to be untangled.
If you go ...
What: ‘The Topless Jihadi and Other Curious Birds,’ paintings by Daisy Rockwell
Where: The Bennington Museum, 75 Main St. , Bennington, Vt.
When: Through Dec. 30. Open daily 10 a. m. to 5 p. m. through October; closed Wednesday in November and December
Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and students over 18. Children and students 18 or younger get in free
Information: www.benningtonmuseum.org, (802) 447-1571