“I really want to write Mr. Stallone a letter and tell him how much I love his movie,” says Deb Sokolow. But, “it’s really Rocky I love. It’s not Sylvester Stallone.”

When Sokolow, a graduate student in fiber and material studies at the School of the Art Institute, sat down in early September to watch a videotape of Rocky–one of her favorite movies–she wasn’t planning on turning it into an art project. But after a few viewings she says she “fell in love with the characters” and became obsessed with wanting to understand what they were thinking. She studied the film daily for a month and a half, taking copious notes on the plot, and last week she installed a detailed five-by-nine-foot diagram titled Rocky and Adrian (and Me) at SAIC’s Gallery 2. The piece analyzes–through circles, boxes, arrows, charts, and tables–the love story of small-time boxer Rocky Balboa and Adrian, the shy pet-shop clerk played by Talia Shire. It includes an 18-scene flowchart displaying the “Time and Location Sequence for Rocky and Adrian’s Burgeoning Love,” with color-coded graphs of the characters’ “comfort levels” (Rocky in red, Adrian in aqua), a “Rocky and Adrian Table of Dissimilarities,” pie charts illustrating “Rocky’s mind space” and “Adrian’s mind space,” and an “Index of Rocky’s Key Phrases for Seducing Adrian.” In a section titled “Rocky’s Love Philosophy” Sokolow quotes some of Stallone’s dialogue from the film: “She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps. I don’t know.”

“I saw him on the street once in LA when I was about nine years old,” says Sokolow of Stallone. “I remember asking my mom why he needs two bodyguards.” Born and raised in Davis, California, Sokolow initially planned to become a graphic designer. But as an undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where her parents had met, Sokolow shifted her focus to art. In 1997 she moved to Chicago, and last year she enrolled at SAIC. She’s been fascinated by diagramming, charting, and mapping for years, and has produced several pieces she describes as “much harder to decode” in the past. For her 2002 piece Translating Lolita she painted geometric forms on wood tablets–circles for the characters in Nabokov’s novel and ellipses for their psychological states. At the exhibit’s opening, she says, “I just stood there explaining it over and over again.”

As a grad student she became fixated on “very formal mark-making exercises” and researched taxonomies and cartography. When she told her father, a public policy specialist at the University of California, about this new area of interest this summer, he sent her a bunch of examples of sociometric analysis–intricate charts with titles like “Schematic Representation of the Process of Protest by Relatively Powerless Groups.”

Sokolow’s documentary interest in interpersonal dynamics isn’t just limited to fiction and films. She says she’s a compulsive voyeur–keeping notebooks full of conversations she overhears on the el and in public bathrooms. “So much of the time I feel like I’m in a movie,” she says. Sometimes on the bus she imagines she’s on her way to visit a character she feels she knows from a film. “I just picture myself being added to the story.” With Rocky and Adrian (and Me), she fulfills this fantasy by inserting a few tangents and subplots starring herself into the schematic. The branching plots are outlined in boxes of text, with explanations like “I don’t give a better rubdown but Rocky likes me more than Adrian,” “I need to make Rocky think that Adrian’s a whore,” and “Adrian’s not going to like that.”

While working on the piece, she burrowed deeper and deeper into Rocky’s world. “I found myself humming the theme song all the time,” she says, “and on the way to the train in the morning I’d sometimes run a little and throw my arms in the air like Rocky.” Now that it’s over, she’s thinking of dressing up like Adrian for Halloween–if she can find just the right red beret.

Rocky and Adrian (and Me) is part of a group show at Gallery 2 of new work from current and recent SAIC students. The gallery’s at 847 W. Jackson and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 to 6 through November 29. It’s free. For more information call 312-563-5162.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets, Bruce Powell.