Painter Alexis Rockman grew up in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. His mother was Margaret Meade’s secretary and as a boy he had plenty of time to study the botanical illustrations, dioramas, and landscape paintings of the museum’s collections. The influence is apparent in Rockman’s work, both its style and substance. He is an artist mesmerized by natural worlds – those past, those future, and those of the neverland surreal.
Rockman, a former columnist and freelance at Natural History magazine, is a technically fastidious naturalist. His flowers would fit in any horticulture catalogue; his birds are Audubon-worthy. But while the bugs and beasts of Rockman’s paintings are rendered with realist accuracy, his imagination leans toward the sci-fi. In a painting from his series Future Evolution a rat becomes a strange, long-toothed, kangaroo-like creature. A common rooster turns into six-winged freak and a squash plant puts out brick-shaped fruits in a painting about the perversity of genetic engineering, part of a series with the sardonic title Wonderful World.
Rockman is an outspoken environmental advocate (one of his dearest causes is the restoration of his hometown river, the Hudson), and his paintings often contain allegories about controversial issues like nuclear energy and climate change. He is preoccupied with how humanity is impacting the natural world and, even more so, how that impact threatens to stretch into the future.
One of his most acclaimed projects is a series called American Icons, which ponders what Earth will look like a few millennia from now, after cataclysmic global warming has done its work. The centerpiece of the series is an epic 8 by 24 foot mural commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Cheekily titled Manifest Destiny, it plays with the idea of the Brooklyn Bridge under 80 feet of water. Civilization is a wreck in Rockman’s panorama. Trees climb up the remains of one of the world’s most famous human structures. The skyline is submerged and fish frolic amid the flotsam of the ruins. Other paintings in the series imagine a tattered Hollywood sign overgrown with thistles, the St. Louis Gateway Arch swaddled in tropical vines.
Visions of the postdiluvian future could easily descend into the gloomy or the melodramatic. But Rockman’s imaginings steer clear of Mad Max dystopias. There’s a usually a wit and a whimsy about his canvases. A painting called The Conversation (from his earlier Expeditions series) features a hunter on safari sharing an evening whiskey with an ape. At first, Disney World I from American Icons seems spooky: a tattered and abandoned Epcot globe surrounded by sepulchre-gray mists. But look in the foreground – there’s a boar humping some kind of oversized rodent.
This faith in nature’s unquenchable vitality provides hopefulness to Rockman’s apocalypse fantastiques. The frog flopping into a lake at the base of Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Arch looks to be having a blast. The seals nosing about the ruins of Brooklyn have no idea anything has gone wrong. No matter how determined humanity is to wreck this place, Rockman seems to saying, the planet will continue to teem with life. The only thing is, we may no longer be in the picture.
Last year the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibited a retrospective of Alexis Rockman’s career. You can view his work at www.alexisrockman.net.
This article has been amended from its original version to include factual corrections.
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