Like if prog rock sobered up, left the basement and got its MBA (and a few rays)

“What you see is what you don’t get” is what American Pop artist James Rosenquist once said about his work, and this statement exemplifies well a cornerstone facet of his ingenuity. Truly, what he purposely leaves out gets you wondering, burrowing helplessly for answers, yet what you do get is a lesson in popular culture iconography.

At first glance and from a distance, Rosenquist’s show at the Barbara Gillman Gallery appears like Abstract Expressionism-meets-Pop Art-meets prog rock imagery.

Pop Art emerged in the ’50s and ’60s as an insurgence against what some thought of as the pretension of the Abstract Expressionists, using commercial icons of the times – celebrities, soup cans and other grocery items, advertisements and comic strips. Rosenquist, like other Pop artists including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, got his start as a commercial artist painting billboards in New York.

The works here aren’t like typical Richard Hamilton-style collages. They hit you, no, shock you with flashy, vivacious colors. You want to look at everything all at once, not knowing where to land your eyes first. Part of the mystique here is that the colors alone are so overwhelming that you don’t know what to focus on first and it’s easier to let it all sink in.

Secondly, you’ll start to see some recognizable features – glimpses of the bluest eyes, the reddest lips and whitest teeth straight out of Maybelline ads, intertwined with flowers and swirling patterns, enough to make the mind’s eye go clinically insane.

“Flowers and Females” sounds soft and pretty, but this piece comes off as rather haunting. Rosenquist’s collage technique superimposes the face of a woman, cut into menacing jagged edges, creating a Venetian-blind effect. The juxtaposition of the sharp lines, the delicacy of the flowers and the overpowering red casts a deranging spell on the viewer.

Similarly, other pieces like “Shriek” and “Crosshatch and Mutations” are as loud and schizophrenic as “Flowers.”

Geishas have an air of mystery about them as they are, with their expressionless white faces, scarlet mouths and black hair. Yet the artist manages to make them even more mysterious by fragmenting the face of an Asian woman in Kabuki theatre makeup, emphasizing the eyes, mouth and, this time, rose-colored cheeks in “The Kabuki Blushes.”

There’s a certain focus here, but also a matter of decomposition. As with many of these pieces, the viewer is left at odds between disorder and beauty.

Other pieces on view include seven lithograph prints from his “High Technology and Mysticism: A Meeting Point” collection – works employing the collage element of the previous pieces, as seen in “Above,” where the face of a woman is suggestively placed over the head of a horse.

“Sky” screams Pop Art loud and clear: you can almost see Warhol and Lichtenstein peeking through. Yes, there are the latter’s famous dotted images and the former’s signature colors – electric blues, hot pinks, shocking yellows – and an overall silkscreen look.

Although the pieces here are almost 20 years old, Rosenquist’s works have preserved their freshness and pop throughout the years. Unlike his earlier works in the ’50s and ’60s, which relied heavily on media and advertising icons, these pieces are comprised mostly of his 1980s work, where collage techniques, mixed media and vibrant colors are wholly emphasized.

All in all, these pieces burst off the canvas with a miscellany of imagery, and, in the end, the feeling of bewilderment is, perhaps, what these works want to incite.

Rosenquist in Florida is on view at the Barbara Gillman Gallery, 3814 NE Miami Court, Miami, through January 12. Call 305-573-1920 for more info.

Ambar Hernandez can be reached at