Journeying to the hidden Linton and Kay Gallery in West Perth, I couldn’t quite discern what I was expecting from Johnny Romeo’s Rock is Dead exhibition. Romeo is popularly revered as Australia’s ‘King of pop art’, but it goes without saying—titles like these are often misused, careless, and indicate more of a Don Quixote self-celebration, rather than a legitimate contribution to the art community. With pop art often existing as an obsessive genre, I found myself feeling more likely to learn something about the artist himself rather than, as the gallery stated, ‘rock music tropes’ and ‘the slow death of rock’n’roll in our cultural landscape’. Upon arrival, however, Romeo allowed me no time for pessimistic interpretations, as the exhibition came to life with each step I took.
Walking from piece to piece, the explosions of Warholian palettes enthralled me, transporting me from dive bars and plastered pubs, to London rooftops and electrified stadiums. The violent rebellion of the clashing Fender on ‘Revolution Morning Sun’ screamed out youth angst and social discomfort, whilst the wistful gaze of the Fleetwood Mac icon on ‘Nightbird’ echoed stories of witches and romantic tragedy, that seemed to flutter around the canvas like a white-winged dove.
In 2014, Kiss’ frontman Gene Simmons (who is depicted in Romeo’s ‘Scream’ piece), declared that the digital age had murdered rock music.
“The death of rock was not a natural death—rock did not die of old age,” he said. According to the Beth rocker, it was streaming and file-sharing that led to its downfall. This shift in the attitudes towards music as an art form is precisely what Johnny Romeo explores in this exhibition, but he refuses to navigate such an intrepid odyssey without ceremoniously reminding the audience of his own artistic muses.
The Picasso-esque colour fragmentation and the construction of flamboyant moments that resemble the non-sequitur surrealism of pop art’s most direct ancestor—often exhibited by David Hockney, is tastefully executed throughout the 21 pieces. Separations of uncertain boundaries using space and juxtaposing tones, much like in Richard Hamilton’s Putting on de Stijl and Interior II, is a focal point in Rock Is Dead; the bygone rock icons and the multifaceted references are slowly brought to the surface—colour by colour, letter by letter.
As a final nod to Romeo’s clear visual cornerstones, the layering behind the paintings of Jeff Koons seem to be simplified and flattened (effectively, might I add) by Romeo in this collection, for there are clear points of the subject. However, pieces like ‘Day Fall Rock’, ‘Star Fox’ and the less-subtle memento mori of ‘Double Fantasy’ exude the same madness,that is indicative of both the ‘Balloon Dog’ modern master and the rock genre too.
Surprisingly, his work lacks cynical disposition and focuses on predominantly his subjects. That being said, he remains confident in the way he allows his own personality to coexist with the work. He gives himself room to personally mourn over the death of the beloved stars of a multi-generational movement whilst refusing to betray his own motivations and end up as a modern-day Basil Hallward.
Rock Is Dead is a climactic scream of defiance and unwavering solidarity—a rock show that refuses to turn down the volume. It seems to hit all the right notes, whilst still giving us the distortion and whammy one should expect. In his exhibition catalogue, the gallery couldn’t have been consolidated more eloquently; “part elegy, part celebration, the series is a raucous love letter to the rock stars that plastered bedroom walls and the vital music that soundtracked generations of restless youth.”
Though the exhibition has finished, Linton and Kay Galleries still house many of the remaining pieces, and a digital exhibition guide is available online for those interested in exploring this unconventional homage to an era of necessary excess and clamour.