Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow
The joint of Art and Science: Is he an artist or an activist?
The first impression of the paintings at the entrance of Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was powerful. They were colorful, large and synthetic images, which I believe all these components captivate an audience easily. On top of that, I thought chronological order of the show helped viewers to engage the artworks and grasp the ideas better. All 47 paintings were categorized in eight different sections: Early works, Biosphere, Guyana, Urban Jungle, Expedition, Artificial Selections, American Icons and Big Weather. Throughout the exhibition, Rockman introduces science realm into the art world and it is interesting to see how these two distant fields, the concept from science and technique of art, are combined. It is confusing to figure out where Rockman stands in these fields but we could at least see how far he came along this road by analyzing the development of his paintings and the contents.
Rockman’s main interest is in natural history and he was exposed to the subject because his mother worked at the American Museum of Natural History when he was younger. Especially, he was fascinated by dioramas and they inspired him on how to look at the world. In one of his early works, “Evolution (1992),” he used diorama to present all different kinds of real and imagined animals and plants. Next to the painting, there was a stack of plan of the painting depicting all 214 animals and their names that are in the painting. It was the beginning of emerging science into art in Rockman’s artworks and borrowing diorama idea was fascinating. However, I wondered how effective it was to use the diorama setting in two-dimensional artwork. It doesn’t mean that it is less interesting than three-dimensional dioramas but it was definitely more self-engagement needed. In addition, I was concerned that there were too many animals depicted in the monumental sized painting and it was overwhelming to look at every individual figure in the painting. It was definitely intriguing to grab one copy of the plan and look up the names of animals I noticed from the painting, and by doing so; it created the atmosphere of being in a science museum. However, the diorama setting didn’t specifically change much of the perception of viewers on how to look at a painting or anything from this. Overall, I wasn’t sure where I should give more weight into, whether I appreciate the painting as an artwork or act like I am in a science museum studying all the creatures in the painting.
Moving along to “Urban Jungle” section, Rockman’s use of diorama come back in “Airport” and “Golf Course,” which are three-dimensional block models made of envirotex, digitized photo and oil paint on wood in 1997. Comparing these to “Evolution,” it was more successful with use of materials because he included actual objects such as trash, golf balls, golf club, soil and so on. These 3D model works aren’t aesthetically pleasing as much as “Evolution,” but deliver the artist’s message more clearly. Therefore, as the purpose of diorama in museums, borrowing it to his art does what Rockman intended in these two artworks, and represents what he wants to say about a man-made disaster. Diorama turned out to be a strong ground of Rockman’s artworks.
The next group of paintings that are from South American jungle of Guyana gives a feeling of artist’s personal attachment because they are looked through one’s lenses. Rockman traveled to Guyana twice; in the first journey, he primarily documented insect life and jungle scenes. Though the paintings captured real jungle scenes, it made me question if I was looking at a real depiction or imaginary pictures. In “Kapok Tree,” it is painted as if the artist is looking up the tree and the sky in the darkness. The painting expresses this sensation that humans are so tiny and incomparable to the mystery and sacred jungle that the Kapok tree is infinite in height and the sky is unreachable. The painting “Host and Vector,” also radiates endless charms of Guyana jungle. With the mixture of pastel toned background and brilliant colored foreground of trees, flowers and a bird, I felt that I was looking at a fairy tale picture. The paintings in “Guyana” section are about 84 inch by 72 inch and they are fairly large-scale works, but I wish there were mural size paintings like “Evolution.” I thought the scene of “Host and Vector” in larger panel would bring extensive impact on viewers.
From the return to the jungle of Guyana the second time, Rockman came back with quite different images than from the first trip. His intention of documenting his trip shifted to representation of his adventure in the jungle. In other words, if he created aesthetically beautiful paintings from the first trip, he is now more interested in the content regarding human’s ignorance towards the nature and ecosystem. He painted imagined incidents in the wild, so they are somewhat illustrative and have obvious narrations that anyone could have similar experience from camping. However, it is different because the images of the insects and plants in the jungle are unfamiliar and they are so realistically depicted that it adds a level of fear to even envisage putting myself in these situations. Yet, I enjoyed looking at Rockman’s paintings from his jungle trips because I got vicarious satisfaction of the experience of exploring the jungle.
As going towards the end of the show, Rockman’s latest works, it laid another layer of realization about what is going on with mankind involvement in the nature and I was concerned about the environmental issues we are facing at the moment. In “Artificial Selections” section, Rockman brought up artificial manipulation of species and imagined what would result from it in the future. In “The Farm,” there are farm animals that we feel closeness from seeing them a lot while we were growing up: however, it is shocking when looking at the details of genetic manipulation. Even “The Trough” literally shows genetic mutation of a pig fucking a duck. Rockman seemed to use his humor in these paintings but the images were so gross and disgusting to digest in my mind. In this section of paintings, Rockman pushed his boundary again about presenting his issue strongly. It’s becoming more like an agenda to awake viewers about his concerns. There is a notion that the information is forced at me, but I would have to agree that it is the most effective way to inform and warn people about our future, because we cannot avoid thinking once again about the problem that the artist is addressing after looking at the paintings.
Finally, in the last two sections, “American Icons” and “Big Weather,” Rockman touched the most popular and serious topic in the world. He brought up the issue of climate crisis in his work by portraying well known places turning into unrecognized areas. In “South,” Rockman portrayed the polar landscape from the Antarctic trip in 2007. He used staining and pouring techniques to illustrate unpredictable weather of cloudiness, and dripping white and blue paints of iceberg to show the ice melting as a result of a rise in temperature. Comparing this particular painting to “Supergrid” and “The Reef,” which the artist used the same technique of pouring, “South” was a little disappointment because it seemed like a simple and effortless painting that needs more technical elaboration. I assume it was probably an ambitious trip to Antarctic but I do not see the artist’s unique experience and perspective in the painting. We know the result of global warming because we see and hear from media all the time, and I was expecting more dramatic imagery like “The Farm”. However, I have to admit that it was the most interesting subject matter of environmental science because it is a currently ongoing issue. The paintings of “American Icons” and Big Weather” reiterated the reality to viewers and perhaps moved them to feel unprovoked guilt. People are already aware of the problem and that they are involved in daily pollution of the world. However, they justify their tiny erroneous behavior and remain ignorant on global warming.
Although majority of his paintings are dealing with natural science and environmental related themes, one part of exhibition, “Biosphere,” didn’t fit well with the other paintings. It might have been to introduce how Rockman’s idea developed in his art making; however, the paintings in this section were the least successful representation. I was baffled by orchids and organisms floating around on the picture plane in “Biosphere: Orchids” and “Biosphere: Hydrographer's Canyon.” The space in the paintings was read as the cosmos rather than biosphere and what the artist intended to show wasn’t clear enough. In this exhibition, I assert that there was too many different ideas presented and it would have been effective to have paintings focused on one issue of environmental science, such as global warming. It would have worked out better if the artist were trying to change our thinking, so that viewers are not confused with all the issues presented now.
Rockman’s interests in natural history: ecosystems, genetic engineering and environmental issues, were well combined with art, and aesthetically pleasing and attractive paintings are created. Also, the size of paintings was generally large that it increased the sublime of both imagery and the theme. However, I am still curious how I should take this peculiar union of art and science. Even though I would like to credit Rockman for joining art and science together, it is strange to feel the optical satisfaction of beautiful images and feel unstable, confused, worried and guilty from the concept of the artworks at the same time. Furthermore, I was unsure where Rockman stands in the realm of art and science. As much as I would like to categorize him as an artist, it seemed to me that many people think of him more as an activist using his paintings as a method. It is true that Rockman’s paintings have explicit opinion and the perspective of how we are unconsciously destroying our natural environments, and also have the quality of re-awakening the viewers about it. So another contradiction exists in combining two different areas of art and science and then distinguishing from each other.