News / USA

Artist is Drawn to Nature's Oddities

Alexis Rockman's paintings depict nature, both real and imagined

'Manifest Destiny' depicts the Brooklyn waterfront 300 years into the future. There is no sign of humanity, but plenty of marine life swimming in the ruins of two bridges and seagulls flying overhead against an orange sky.
'Manifest Destiny' depicts the Brooklyn waterfront 300 years into the future. There is no sign of humanity, but plenty of marine life swimming in the ruins of two bridges and seagulls flying overhead against an orange sky.

Multimedia

One of the first contemporary artists to address subjects such as biodiversity and global warming was Alexis Rockman. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has organized the artist's first retrospective.

With images of tropical plants, insects and amphibians on the walls, it is clear that Rockman has a love of nature but his artist's eye is drawn less to nature's beauty and more to its oddities.

"I think frogs are charming and magical and wonderful, and turtles," the artist says, adding he is "attracted to things that are unlovable."

Inspired by natural history

His paintings feature the type of animals one might encounter in a natural history museum, which isn't surprising.

"His mother worked at the American Museum of Natural History for many years," says curator Joanna Marsh. "As a boy he spent many hours in that museum absorbing the displays, the wall murals."

That clearly can be seen in many of Rockman's early works, especially his monumental 1992 painting, "Evolution," a fantasy landscape of imagined and real animals past and present.

"I started out thinking of it as a chart," Rockman says. "That is generally how I organize information. It starts out as a series, a list of names or things that might happen. And then it is like decorating a Christmas tree really."

A trip to Guyana in 1994 inspired works that were closer to scientific paintings of flora and fauna that he saw in the rainforest. But by the time he returned from that trip, his focus was on man's impact on nature. "I started to think about my feelings for the things I was painting and started to feel active and dynamic."

Sometimes he uses humor to make a point. "Ready to Rumble" shows a trio of masked animals at a landfill. "I was for some reason in the mood to do something a little more lighthearted, so I turned a turkey vulture, a Norway rat and a domestic cat into these characters," Rockman says. "I saw them as superheroes of the dump."

'The Conversation' (2001, detail) was inspired by Clint Eastwood's film 'White Hunter Black Heart.' The artist put himself in the role of the hunter.
'The Conversation' (2001, detail) was inspired by Clint Eastwood's film 'White Hunter Black Heart.' The artist put himself in the role of the hunter.

Other times, his approach is a little more subtle, as it is in "The Conversation," which depicts a meeting between modern man and an ancient ancestor, Australopithecine. The figures, seated in a tent are in shadow, but it's clear the contemporary figure is holding a rifle. "It's about hunting and hoping the protagonist will do the right thing."

His message is bleak and clear in a work he started in 2000 and completed nearly four years later - the 7-plus-meter long mural titled "Manifest Destiny." The painting depicts the Brooklyn waterfront 300 years in the future. There is no sign of humanity, but plenty of marine life swimming in the ruins of two bridges and seagulls flying overhead against an orange sky.

Artist Alexis Rockman has been depicting the natural world for more than 20 years.
Artist Alexis Rockman has been depicting the natural world for more than 20 years.

Focus on climate change

Curator Joanna Marsh says the mural is one of Rockman's first paintings to focus specifically on climate change. More followed, including a series of iconic American landscapes like the U.S. Capital, the Hollywood sign and the Presidential portraits at Mount Rushmore, impacted by climate change.

It was his treatment of climate change that led to the exhibition title, "A Fable for Tomorrow." Marsh says she borrowed it from the opening chapter of environmentalist Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book, Silent Spring. "She describes a mythic town, 'where all life seems to live in harmony,' and I am quoting Carson. But over time, as the result of chemical pesticides the town shows signs of death."

Carson based her predictions on scientific information, which "is exactly what I saw Alexis Rockman doing in his work," the curator says.

Rockman says the older he gets the more skeptical he is about whether humans will solve the problem before it is too late. "Life isn't going anywhere. It is where humans want to be in the configuration that is up to the humans."

But he says the exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art museum gives him hope. "Because it shows there is a level of consciousness and a willingness to put challenging work on the walls of a governmental institution."

The exhibit covers 24 years of Rockman's career. At just 48 years old, he has many more years to challenge people with his art.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

US Urges Restraint in Hong Kong Protests

Protesters angered by Beijing's decision to only approve candidates that it sanctions for Hong Kong's leadership elections in 2017 More

Archive of Forgotten UCLA Speeches Offers Snapshot of History

Recordings of prominent voices in social change, politics, science and literature from 1960s, early 1970s now available on YouTube More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenyai
X
Gabe Joselow
September 29, 2014 6:20 PM
Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Video

Video Reconstruction? What Reconstruction? Life After War in Gaza

It’s been a month since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire to end 52 days of an air and tank war that left 60,000 homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed and 110,000 homeless. Sharon Behn reports that lack of reconstruction is leading to despair.
Video

Video US, Saudi Arabia and UAE Hit Islamic State's Oil Revenue

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bombed oil facilities operated by Islamic State militants in Syria. It was a truly collaborative effort, with the two Arab countries dropping the majority of the bombs. The 12 refineries targeted were estimated to generate as much as $2 million per day for the terrorist group. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.
Video

Video Russia's Food Sanctions Raise Price Worries, Hopes for Domestic Production

Russia retaliated against Western sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine by halting food imports from the West. The temporary import ban on food from Australia, the European Union, Norway and North America has Russian consumers concerned that they could face a sharp increase in food prices. But in an ironic twist, the restrictions aimed at the Kremlin have made Russia's domestic food producers hopeful this can boost their business. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid