Johnny Romeo, Ditty Kitty School, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas 150cm x 200cm

Johnny Romeo, Song Slope Sonata, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas 150cm x 200cm

Johnny Romeo, Twelve Tone Lido, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas 150cm x 200cm


Johnny Romeo’s I Can Dream, I Can Breathe, Helter Skelter, is a celebration of the restless creative drive to innovate and forever move forward. A special release commissioned by Mission Restaurant, Chippendale, I Can Dream… is a breathtaking triptych spanning 6 metres. Paying homage to his hero Pablo Picasso, these three works are exuberant slices of Neo-expressionist Pop mastery that evoke the spirit of Picasso’s Les Baigneusses (The Bathers) (1918). Johnny Romeo aspires to carry the torch of Picasso, the Great Modernist painter, by pushing the boundaries of his own works into a realm that he has irreverently dubbed ‘so-so modern’.

I Can Dream, I Can Breathe, Helter Skelter pulsates with an insatiable rhythmic quality, evoking not only the Cubist tradition of Picasso but also the exhilarating cadence of beat poetry or free jazz. Looking at Picasso’s Les Baigneusses (The Bathers) (1918), it has been noted that ‘in a setting that demands leisure and comfort, the three women are contorted and precarious.’ Echoing the Cubism of Picasso, Romeo’s bathers are richly rounded and disjointed, with Romeo’s rich line-work connoting a sense of movement that is at once spontaneous and harmonious.

The interplay between the sumptuous abstractions of the female figures, the kitschy figuration of childhood and Romeo’s clever use of Pop-savvy text evokes the ebb and flow of movements in a free-spirited jazz piece. Like a musician using fragments of lyrics and melodies as a springboard for compositions, Romeo adopts the rhythmic thrust of poetry and song to create a potent sense of momentum in his works.

Far from leisurely, the sharp shots of colour that comprise the female form in works like Ditty Kitty School are brilliant and vivacious, smouldering with a barely contained energy. With his love of lively colour arrangements in full flight, Romeo has drawn inspiration from the scintillating, hyper-coloured fantasy worlds of latter-day Tim Burton productions and the acid-neon of Old Detroit and Chicago Techno. Romeo skilfully juxtaposes the taut colour palette of the bathers with expressive swathes of garish hues that bleed in to each other in the background. In doing so, Romeo conjures the searing moments of clarity amidst the malaise of perpetual motion – dreaming and breathing amidst the helter skelter of modernity.

The usage of childhood motifs in Romeo’s triptych imbues the works with a playful, humorous bent. On a deeper level, however, these symbols allude to the boundless potential of childhood imagination as a visual allegory for the pursuit of innovation and forward motion. In Song Slope Sonata, for example, Romeo depicts wind-up ducks skittering across the canvas. A cheeky play on Florentijn Hofman’s giant Rubber Duck that sat in Sydney’s Darling Harbour earlier this year, Romeo’s ducks are constantly moving forwards and onwards, pushing against the confines of the canvas.

I Can Dream, I Can Breathe, Helter Skelter sees Johnny Romeo pay tribute to his personal hero, ingeniously grafting the Cubism of Picasso with his own exuberant brand of neo-Expressionist Pop bombast. The triptych bursts at the seams with glorious explosions of colour and a rich, rhythmic linear aesthetic that evokes the ebb and flow of jazz and beat poetry. Brimming with life and urgency, the series is a spirited celebration of our capacity to dream, to breathe and find meaning amidst the helter skelter of contemporary life.

August 8, 2013