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Unnatural History: Alexis Rockman at the Wexner Center

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Unnatural History: Alexis Rockman at the Wexner Center
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Alexis Rockman’s paintings present us with a challenge, though perhaps not the challenge one would expect.

Rockman paints those messy and unkempt spaces where humans and the environment collide. Throughout his career he has offered sobering depictions of nature (both real and imagined) while highlighting our persistently negative impact on it. Pollution, mutation, death and decay are pushed to the fore, sometimes with uncompromising frankness and sometimes with wry humor. Rockman is a representational painter, one who deals in unpleasant truths and foreseeable consequences. As a result, there’s a tendency to typecast Rockman in the role of “artist as prophet”, crying out in the wilderness, imploring us to see the future and mend our ways. Given the subject matter, it’s easy to view Rockman’s retrospective at the Wexner Center as a challenge to look closely at the impact of our increasingly industrialized culture and consider a change.

The truth is Rockman’s work may very well be exactly that. The title of the exhibition suggests as much. In naming the show Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow, the curator’s have forged a direct link between these paintings and the work of ground-breaking environmental champion Rachel Carson. The real challenge though – and perhaps the place where the real reward lies – is in looking beyond the shock and awe of the subject matter and creating a space to appreciate the conceptual subtleties of the paintings themselves. While I’m among the first to acknowledge the importance of political painters, environmental painters, and painters of whatever message you can imagine, we run the risk of missing half the story if we ignore the painting part.

So, about that painting part: Alexis Rockman paints in a mostly high-resolution style that pays homage to the unsung (or at least unappreciated) tradition of scientific and botanical illustration. His work suggests that when push comes to shove accuracy and exactitude would trump artistic license. These are paintings that are part John James Audubon, part science textbook (complete with cutaways and cross-sections) and part “The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles“. Rockman is clearly a keen observer; intent on maintaining a literal approach to his subjects. It’s an attention to detail that plays out in work that puts the entire picture plane into a kind of hyper-focus

There’s also a fair amount of Northern Renaissance influence at work here. Think of how Bosch and Brueghel would crowd their paintings with the minutest of details. Exposition was the goal, compositional considerations be damned. This tendency is true as well for Rockman, even when he’s is depicting fantastical flora and fauna. His fictions have an authenticity of detail that easily match his renderings of the observable world.

Similarly, Rockman references the rich traditions of Dutch still life painting, not just in his painting’s sharp contrasts and vivid detail, but in the small stylistic touches he employs. The still life is, after all, “dead nature”. As if to prove this point, it was not uncommon for the Dutch masters to pepper their paintings with evidence of death and decay. Rockman sprinkles similar reminders of mortality in many of his paintings. Bones, ruins, relics, and entrails suggest again and again that nothing in this world is permanent.

The classic Dutch still life also relies on some fairly standard demonstrations of technical proficiency. Painters would highlight their prowess through nearly photographic renderings of glass, fur, water droplets, and perhaps most famously some item or bit of bric-a-brac foreshortened and balanced on the edge of a table. This final illusory flourish was more or less the finishing move for any still life artist worth their salt.

Rockman approaches his paintings with similar verve, relishing the chance to depict drops of water, transparent wings, and foreshortened limbs. It’s the kind of painting you don’t see every day, and the kind you might miss if you’re swept away in the scale and grandeur of much of Rockman’s work.

Speaking of scale and grandeur, let’s not lose sight of the fact that behind all this detail and technical ability is a very American painter. These are big paintings, comprised of equal parts ambition and curiosity. They’re expansive and expository, like a Bierdstadt landscape from the 19th-Century, sent back east to illustrate a world people could only otherwise hope to imagine.

Much attention has already been given to Rockman’s early exposure to the painted murals that frame The American Museum of Natural History’s famous dioramas. I expect Rockman is also well acquainted with Zallinger’s The Age of Reptiles mural at the Yale Peabody Museum. In this current exhibition Evolution (1992) and Manifest Destiny (2003-2004) are the two works that link Rockman most closely to the mural tradition. They function in a way like bookends, holding the show together thematically and highlighting many of the stylistic changes in Rockman’s work.

Evolution shows Rockman at an earlier stage in his career, literally finding his way. There’s ample evidence of repainting, reworking and painting over throughout the mural. His enthusiasm for the potential of paint and what it can do is obvious. The range of techniques, colors, and applications is dizzying. The end result is that Evolution buzzes with life and energy.

Manifest Destiny is considerably more subdued. The paint application is much more controlled. The palette closes in on nearly monochromatic shades of rust. In Manifest Destiny Rockman captures the stillness and solitude of decay.

What’s been perhaps less rigorously chronicled than the diorama and mural connection is Rockman’s relationship to 19th century American landscape painting. The dense foliage and atmospheric haze seen in many of Rockman’s paintings point back to the Hudson River School, particularly the work of Frederick Edwin Church. The Church references appear again as one considers South, Rockman’s panorama of glaciers and ocean inspired by a trip to Antarctica.

Alexis Rockman clearly has a story to tell. His paintings express a point of view and ask that we consider carefully our relationship to the world around us. That’s a noble undertaking and one that resonates in a culture that still looks to art for both reflection and guidance. And while the story and subject matter might inform our initial response to Rockman’s work, our job of looking doesn’t end there. These are paintings after all, and very good ones. They’re elegant, informed, sophisticated, and built on a foundation that connects us with some of the richest traditions in art. So enjoy Rockman’s stories, and then challenge yourself to look a little more closely and appreciate how those stories are told.

Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through Friday December 30th, 2011.

Alexis Rockman will offer an artist’s talk at the Wexner Center for the Arts’ Film/Video Theater on Tuesday November 8th at 7:00 PM.

Artwork credits:

Alexis Rockman
Cataclysm
Oil and acrylic on wood
48 x 40 inches
2003

Alexis Rockman
Bromeliad: Kaieteur Falls
Oil and lacquer on wood
40 x 32 inches.
1994

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