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Bill Rock is not an artist who tries very hard to please people.
Consider an exhibition he did a few years ago at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington. The show, called “Random 24,” was based on a simple premise: Have 24 strangers sit for an hour in his studio to have their portraits painted. Rock’s canvases were large—18 by 40 inches—so he was usually able to finish only a portion of each one before his subject left.
When the finished paintings were hung at the exhibition, Rock recalls, most of his sitters attended. “A lot of them thought it was a little bizarre,” Rock recalls. “I invoked a fair amount of realism….I knew when they left the studio that a lot of them did not like what I was working on.”
Since then, Rock’s bare-knuckled approach hasn’t softened much. The paintings in “Local Heads,” his new show of portraits at the District Fine Arts gallery in Georgetown, range from the moderately grotesque to the highly grotesque.
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Human Shark, for instance, features a man with a circular mouth, his teeth askew and bloodied. Shiner features an elastic-faced man with a wine-red blotch where his right eye should be. Robber features a sneaky-looking criminal whose eye mask appears to be tattooed into his face, rather than shielding it.
“I’m pretty much a straight shooter,” says Rock, 41. “It’s like kids. A kid doesn’t mince words. When you ask, ‘What do you think of that guy?’ they’ll say, ‘I don’t like him.’…There’s a vibe. I try to be like that as much as possible. It’s really an investigation into the head. I definitely think my work is very reflective. It’s as much about me as it is them.”
Actually, the title “Local Heads” is a misnomer. The faces in his show aren’t of D.C. characters he’s gotten to know—at least not strictly so. Except for Ford (a late artist friend of Rock’s), the artworks in “Local Heads” are composites of faces he’s known in Chicago, New York, Washington, and his hometown of Madison, Wis.
For Rock’s Night Inventory, the idea came from a man who worked the late and early shifts at a store where Rock used to buy office supplies. “I just knew him as the night-inventory guy,” Rock says. “He looked pretty much like he does in that image. He was very sleepy every day because he was up all night and would go home about 11 a.m. or noon. When I started to draw him, I added other graveyard-shift people I’ve known into the mix. Over time, the same characters will come back for a visit. It’s spooky.” —Louis Jacobson