Artist Alexis Rockman delights in the natural world and paints it as it is, as well as how it might be. Mainly, he's worried about where it's headed, now that humans have started messing around with it. His work depicts a world that is both real and fanciful, genuine and synthetically altered.
Rockman grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and like many of his generation, the experience left him with an activist streak.
"I can't just accept that I stay in my studio and be — I would not say self-indulgent, because that's too judgmental — but self-involved," he says. So he gets out — he has spent weeks camping in the rain forest and has taken a ship through the Antarctic Peninsula. Upon returning from Antarctica, Rockman had to decide how to represent all the ice he saw down there.
"Why not make a group portrait of ice, and think of it like a family portrait of what's not going to be here forever?" he says, standing in front of a painting nearly 30 feet long at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. An exhibition of nearly four dozen works of his opened there Nov. 19.
Rockman likes to play with our expectations of what's normal. In the painting called Sea World, an audience watches as a collection of marine animals performs tricks, but the animals are nothing like the killer whales and dolphins we're used to seeing.
"They're familiar because of their roles," says Rockman. "Some of them are familiar from paleontological history. You have a Dunkleosteus, which to me is the most frightening predator in history. It's a Devonian fish that's now, luckily for humans, extinct, but it was enormous and very frightening."
The sea creatures, somehow restored to life in a theme park, hint at a future where cloning makes re-creating extinct animals possible.
"That's part of his signature style — to make the familiar seem foreign to make our world seem otherworldly," says Joanna Marsh, curator of the exhibition. And genetic engineering, she says, "is a recurring subject in Rockman's work."
Facing Sea World in the gallery is a painting called The Farm. At first blush, it's a typical farm scene, with livestock wandering through the planted fields. But it's not real at all — there's a normal cow, but also a cow bred to be square-shaped for easy packing; a pig so obese it can no longer move; a chicken whose three wings look like they're ready to be popped off and thrown into the deep-fat fryer. The images are, well, scary.
"The history of artificial selection is a powerful thing, and human behavior is not always kind," Rockman says.
Rockman asks us to consider where we should draw the limits when altering nature. "What is a species, and what are the boundaries of that?" he asks. "Those are all frightening things to, certainly, myself."
'Black Humor' In The Art
But there's humor as well: the three-winged chicken is amusing, but in a macabre way.
"I would say black humor," says Rockman. "But those things are obviously ways of telling the truth. You don't want to completely alienate the world with tough images."
There are different ways of getting at the truth: A scientist's truth involves measurements and reproducibility; Rockman says an artist's truth involves metaphor. It's informed by science, but it's not constrained by it.
Climate models don't specifically say New York will be buried under 50 feet of water, but Rockman imagines it happening in Manifest Destiny — perhaps the sea reclaiming the city is payback for humans mucking around with genetic engineering. Something to think about.