“Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land-use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.” This is just one of a number of dire summaries from the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) Fifth Assessment Report, “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,” released on September 27. The report goes on to note that as the 21st century progresses, an “increased incidence and/or magnitude of extreme high sea level[s]” is “very likely.” For all the residents of the tri-state region who were affected by Hurricane Sandy, and really for anyone concerned about the environment and who can lay claim to having either a shred of rationality or at least one foot planted in reality (the tragedy being that so many, particularly in Congress, do not), it is terrible news. It will come as no surprise for Alexis Rockman, who has been attentive to these transformations over the course of the last 25 years and has rendered them in paint with an uncompromising and unparalleled eye. He has two exhibitions of new work open this month in New York: Rubicon at Sperone Westwater, where a number of large oil paintings and watercolors, most executed before Sandy hit, imagine both the catastrophe and beauty of a flooded New York; and Drawings from Life of Pi, at The Drawing Center, which collects Rockman’s creative work for Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel. Jonathan T. D. Neil spoke with Rockman about these shows and about the catastrophic sensibility that informs his sublime allegories of our future.
Rail: Where did the title for the Sperone Westwater show come from?
Rockman: It came from one of those moments when I had to come up with something and I started to poke around on the Internet and look into the history of points of no return, and “Rubicon” just seemed like a great word that was just familiar enough and just mysterious enough—it didn’t have too much baggage.
Rail: There’s a politics to the crossing of the Rubicon; was that in your mind?
Rail: What’s the point of no return in your mind?
Rockman: It’s the amount of cooked CO2 in the atmosphere. But there’re so many ways to create that. How many points of no return are there?
Rail: But for you, the spike in CO2 over the last 150 years—
Rockman: Absolutely, the Industrial Revolution. Bill McKibben’s 350.org was something I had in mind, the 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is widely accepted as the safe upper limit.
Rail: How does this apply directly to what we’re seeing in the new work? Let’s start with the major piece, “Bronx Zoo.”
Rockman: I think that it’s the biodiversity crisis, which has been underway since humans left Africa. Wherever we go there’s a wake of extinctions. And a zoo is such a mysterious and complicated place to me because it has a sense of wonder, it’s a library, it’s an ark—it’s all these things, and it’s also very sad when you think that many of these creatures have no place to go other than a zoo.
Rail: And so this is their last possible refuge.
Rockman: I have a tremendous amount of ambivalence myself about going to zoos. Zoos are our last hope, and it’s pathetic that they’re our last hope.
Rail: But is there a sense that, though the zoo itself seems like it’s a little bit of a tired concept, the management and the care of other animal species, which the zoo represents, holds out at least a little bit of a model for the kind of responsibility that humans have to the world that they inhabit.
Rockman: Absolutely, and it’s no coincidence that the role of the zoo has changed over the years. There’s been a political and conceptual shift.
Rail: So no longer something that is about the domination of nature and the bringing of it under one—
Rockman: Colonialist rule.
Rail: Exactly—for human entertainment. And now, it’s much more a sense of stewardship and care.
Rockman: And I’m skeptical about that, but it’s our only hope. It’s a very tough position.
Rail: Right. In the painting, the one species that seems to be absent or only suggested—there are many that are missing, but the one that is significantly missing—is humans.
Rockman: Are they? It’s a completely human environment, so they’re not literally there, but what could humans be doing? That would be someone else’s project, what the humans are doing. They’re somewhere. I don’t know where they are, but they’re around.
Rail: So what we’re seeing is what happens when humanity retreats from its responsibilities?
Rockman: Or decides to be less than interested, shall we say.
Rockman: Really, what are the forces at work in terms of the battle for conservation areas? It’s capitalism. And that’s an indifference.
Rail: When you say capitalism is an “indifference,” what do you mean?
Rockman: I think capitalism is indifferent to many of the things that need to be cared for, that won’t in the short term generate income. Now obviously ecotourism is a big hope, and it has been successful in many parts of the world.
Rail: But it’s sad to think that that’s the model we have to live with in order to care for and to see these environments conserved in the future.
Rockman: The big problem, if you go to places like the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica—that has been a success story, in terms of conservation—is climate. Climate is the problem, and there’s no amount of protection that can change that, because of this chemistry experiment—the horse is out of the barn.
Rail: I was recently reading a review of a new book that’s just been published by Lisa-ann Gershwin called Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean—
Rockman: I don’t know it, but it sounds good.
Rail: It was a review by Tim Flannery in the New York Review, and in it there are some beautiful pictures of different kinds of jellyfish. I take it as an indication that you’re either ahead of the curve, or certainly a part of this current, that jellyfish play such a prominent role in a few of the works in this show. Tell me a little bit about the role that jellyfish play in this bizarre or perverse ecosystem.
Rockman: They have the brightest future, along with a handful of other marine organisms. They will be the universal ecology. And how can you not love the way a jellyfish looks? It’s magical; it’s mysterious. You don’t know whether it’s one animal or a colony of different animals that make this mysterious mass. They couldn’t be more “other” to me, and also more beautiful. They’re also irresistible on so many levels in terms of painting opportunities.
Rail: Do they stand in as—not a redemptive figure—but as harbingers of our return to some Precambrian period, before humans could even survive on the planet?
Rockman: I don’t think that’s the way I think about things; it’s more like a future when all bets are off. Back in time is not what I’m thinking about at all. You couldn’t make up how strange the future is going to be. I’m just trying to be a documentarian, frankly. The weirder things may get, the more I may be on to something.
Rail: So, in a millennium, when someone or something uncovers this work and realizes that it depicts something that actually happened—
Rockman: Or maybe the mystery will be that there was this biodiversity in the first place. That could be the strangest part.
Rail: The notion that all bets are off, and the forward trajectory, since all of this is done in painting—I can’t help thinking it has to have something to say, self-reflexively, about the practice of painting, and about the conditions of possibility that are available to art. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about how you see this catastrophic sensibility liberating what it is that you’re able to do as a painter.
Rockman: There are so many things to consider. Sitting in my studio I ask myself, “What can I do that matters? What can I do that really takes advantage of the resources I have for the next six months and to do something that matters to me and will be memorable?” My family has a big presence too. I always run my ideas by my partner Dorothy [Spears], and I think about what my stepsons’ futures will be like and it makes me mad. Ferran, who is 17, also suggested ideas for the big paintings. So I tend to get a checklist, and I go down it, and I start to think about the issues that I want to deal with. And then I always have in mind how lucky I am as an artist. I don’t have corporate sponsorship looking over my shoulder. It’s always about this idea that you can really have an internal voice and talk about things that no one else may be willing to talk about, at least on a visual scale that has a platform. And then I think,“Alright, what can I do that I’m going to make by hand, by myself, that can—I wouldn’t say compete with the rest of culture and even pop culture, like movies—but what can I do that has a relationship to that culture and that has as much credibility in terms of persuasive language? And also has a shared language with art history.” You know, I love art. I love the tradition of painting. There’s a lot of great postwar American painting that I think is fabulous and that I try to reference—some color field painting, obviously the scale of postwar painting, things like that. I just feel so lucky to be able to have these opportunities.
Rail: I know I wouldn’t say it’s a return because you’ve been working at this epic scale and in this kind of epic sweep for a long time, but it seems that there’s also a real engagement with the question of history painting.
Rockman: Yes, it’s true. We know that history painting is always telling the story of triumphs, of the winners, and I’ve always been attracted to the things that haven’t necessarily been that successful. Or things that make me feel ambivalent. If I’m going to make a history painting, I do not want to make it about the past, but maybe about the future. That’s one thing. So you’re embracing it and you’re challenging traditions. And then I want to make—I don’t want to say stories, because I don’t know what the story is—but I want to make compelling images that have a sense of triumphalism. But what are the implications of triumph? The “Bronx Zoo” painting is about the triumph of jellyfish? Well that’s just sad. So, yes, it’s from the point of view of the jellyfish if you want to think about it from the traditional perspective of history paintings. But I want to set up these conflicted and conflicting feelings that lead to this sense of ambivalence.
Rail: And as a viewer you cannot help but be confronted with its immensity—it’s almost sublime.
Rockman: Yes! Absolutely. I want all those things, and then I want you to walk away with a sense of something else.
Rail: I’m interested in this question of history painting because a history painting of or for the future needs to imagine a moment after the catastrophe, and this points to a problem with time, or with temporality. And initially we can say, “It’s because we’re running out of it, and so we feel this horizon impinging upon us.” But I think that’s always the false way of thinking about it. The last moment that history painting underwent a kind of crisis was from the late 18th century into the middle of the 19th century, from Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” through Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” up to Courbet and—
Rockman: “A Burial at Ornans.”
Rail: Exactly, “A Burial at Ornans,” where it’s epic in scope, but it’s a funeral.
Rockman: Or negligence. And racism. I haven’t really thought about those paintings in a long time, but they had a big impact on me, as did Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808.” It’s the idea of the ambivalent triumphs. Or failure.
Rail: And also the fact that painting is trying to capture this. I think that there’s this sense—the mistaken sense, for many people—that photography is the thing that ushered in this feeling of instantaneity into the world of image-making. But long before photography emerges as a technology, there’s the desire for this up-to-date-ness. There’s a desire for immediacy, whether it’s Goya’s war etchings or Géricault working from tragic stories in the newspaper and trying to conjure an image out of that—there’s this notion that time has caught up with itself. You know that it has caught up with you and now you’re trying to figure out how to represent that.
Rockman: There’s also the other idea that when I started making paintings that dealt with these issues, there was something so wrong about it. Painting a still life was just so disgraced. That is such a challenge. What can you do that’s not just a complete embarrassment? If you want to be taken seriously as a young artist, if you can pull that off, then you’re really on to something.
Rail: So that represents the risk? It’s the embrace of the embarrassment that then actually requires a commitment.
Rockman: I was watching the Blu-ray of Bride of Frankenstein last night, which has always been one of my favorite movies because it’s so beautifully stylish and fantastic in every way, but there’s such a sense of complete, earnest heartbreak and loneliness combined with this over-the-top sense of humor. Having these two contradictory impulses together, it’s just magical—there’s so much electricity that comes out of it.
Rail: It’s the marriage of the sincere and the perverse.
Rockman: Exactly. And the whole subtext of the politics, of the gender and sexuality, of the religious—it’s just so brilliant.
Rail: It’s not going to escape viewers that of course the Bronx Zoo is flooded. Were you working on, or did you have the idea for this painting before Sandy struck last year?
Rockman: I think the painting was close to being done. And I was afraid when Sandy hit that my painting would literally be flooded up to the point where the water is in the picture, and that there would be jellyfish swimming around in my studio. I was unhappy when it happened, for the obvious reasons, but I also thought that what I was coming up with was something that was over-the-top—and then I kept seeing images of Wall Street, and it looked like the painting.
Rail: In more ways than one there’s the sense that Sandy came and rewrote what the painting is about. It made it much more local, whereas I think that the scope of the work, given the species represented, is attempting a global implication. But all of a sudden it became very local because it is the Bronx Zoo and it is underwater.
Rockman: I don’t know what I think of it. There are some good things about it, and then there are some things I’m not crazy about.
Rail: You live downtown, your studio’s downtown: How did Sandy affect you personally, in your day-to-day?
Rockman: I probably didn’t take it as seriously as I should have, like most people. I was in my studio the day it hit, until, maybe, four o’clock, and then I thought I should go home and buy some groceries. Then it was like Dawn of the Dead, because so many groceries were gone already. We battened down the hatches. It was terrifying. We got off easy. All we lost was electricity. Dorothy and my stepson and I hung around the city a couple of days. I came to my studio and it was fine; there was no water damage. I was grateful, and I felt so lucky. But there were a lot of shady-looking characters lurking around. We didn’t get the feeling it brought out the best in humanity. It brought out the best in some humanity. But there was someone lurking around in our backyard. I slept with a knife under my pillow. We went into survival mode and then left town after we ran out of power. And when we left, we were very aware of the socioeconomic implications of what’s going to happen, and what’s happening. It was like a little rehearsal.
Rail: It feels like a rehearsal, but then it is simply going to be a rehearsal until the main production comes, and none of it will have prepared you for that. In some sense, that’s the interesting problem—the rehearsal is trying to represent what the future will bring, always adapting to current circumstances and trying to expand on those variables to prepare. But then there’s just simply no way to do it because the crisis arrives and it catches everybody off guard.
Rockman: I couldn’t agree more.
Rail: There are a number of new, large watercolors in the show—
Rockman: Yes, and I had to reinvent my watercolor language due to the scale of them, and I had some technical issues I wanted to deal with. I had to go back to the drawing board with materials and reinvent what I was doing. I spent a couple of months—not last summer but the summer before—doing a body of work that I knew wasn’t necessarily going to work, but I had to figure out how to use this stuff.
Rail: They have a very different sensibility from the two major oil paintings in the show.
Rail: There’s a real beauty to these.
Rockman: That is what I was hoping for.
Rail: Were you hoping for something beyond this aesthetic impact?
Rockman: Well I don’t want everything I do to be a bummer. [Laughter.] You know, if you can make a beautiful watercolor of jellyfish, that’s just a wonderful thing. But the works also deal with problems of point of view that engage with film and photography. I tried to push it a little bit, but it’s not that crazy.
Rail: But it certainly presents a series of works where you’re much closer to it as a viewer.
Rockman: I wanted a sense of vertigo or immersion.
Rail: It achieves that immersion differently because, with the scale of the “Bronx Zoo” painting or the scale of the “Gowanus” painting, you’re outside of them, even though they encompass your vision. Whereas with these, you’re up close, and they situate you as viewer—you’re underneath the tree, you are in the water to a certain extent, you are hanging above this drainage ditch—
Rockman: It’s the mosquito perspective. P-O-V of the mosquito.
Rail: You’ve just done this work on the movie Life of Pi and, as we know from the exhibition that’s up at The Drawing Center, there’s a real attempt to embody the vision of another species, in that case specifically the tiger.
Rockman: Right, and that was something that Ang [Lee] had put on the table at the very first meeting that I had with him in 2009. He said a number of things and then he said, “I want to discuss how we can describe Tiger Vision.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “We’ll get to that later.” [Laughs.] He had some ideas that were fascinating, but a perhaps a little bit too much about art history. We went through a series of images from Futurism, from Cubism—this idea of different perspectives, and we ended up putting it on the shelf, on the back burner for a couple of years, because the movie had to be made, and this was a discrete moment. When the opportunity came around again and Ang asked if I had ideas about what Tiger Vision might be, I started to think about it. Obviously you can’t guess what an animal thinks or sees—well, you can of course, so let me rephrase that: it’s a fool’s errand to really think you know what an animal sees, but it’s a lot of fun to imagine it. So I thought, “Well, if I were a starving tiger on a boat, the first thing I’d want to see is food,” so I started to think about what a tiger would see and I started to look on the Internet for ideas about transparent fish and about looking into fish and I came across these beautiful models from sushi restaurants in Japan that were transparent, almost anatomical models of fish. You could see into them and all the different cuts of sushi. That’s where I started off in the beginning of the sequence, and then it went into more psychedelic stuff from there, but that was the bridge from the rational surface of the water to the extreme psychedelic levels of the depths.
Rail: Has that given you a sense when you’re working on paintings—these or other ones or new projects—of saying, “Alright, one of the ways of approaching the problem of what I want to make here is trying to think of it through the lens of what another animal might see”?
Rockman: That’s something I’ve done for years. I’m thinking about a painting I made over 20 years ago of frogs at the base of a tree looking up, and it’s from the perspective of a person with a flashlight so the bottom of the tree is illuminated in a circle. The idea came from spending time in the rainforest and going out at night looking for frogs and other nocturnal wildlife. That painting is set up from the perspective of a human, but it might as well be from the perspective of a frog. Those are things I’ve thought about a lot over the years, but of course I learned a lot from working on the movie, in terms of storytelling and being disciplined about saying something once, saying it clearly and cleanly, and believing in it and moving on.
Rail: There’s a smaller set of watercolors in the Sperone Westwater show where there is a composite of what looks like a bird, a rat, and a small alligator.
Rockman: It’s a vulture, an alligator, and a possum, and a reticulated python for a tail.
Rail: And in the large painting of the Gowanus Canal there’s another composite animal. Did this also come from the work on Life of Pi?
Rockman: The watercolor is a chimera, and that’s something that I’ve done for years. I take this mythological creature and plug it in with animals that have a bright future, that would be able to exist in and around human activity: the python is now a big presence in Florida; everyone knows what a possum is; alligators, they’re doing really well too; and of course every body of water needs an alligator somewhere; and then the vultures, as reviled as they are, I think are doing fairly well since DDT was outlawed. But the idea of taking a mythological creature and turning it into a joke about not only monsters, but—
Rail: The ideal organism of the future.
Rockman: Exactly. The character or image in the bottom of the “Gowanus Canal” is absolutely—I wouldn’t say inspired—about the things I did on Life of Pi with the squid, and the whale, and the composite animals that they are based on: the squid being based on ocean life that was Pi and Richard Parker the tiger’s present reality, or their ordeal, or their life in the ocean, or some of the life in the ocean; and the whale being representative of many of the animals that perished in the shipwreck, that died when they were shipwrecked and orphaned, literally, from the ship, the Tsimtsum. It was a metaphor about the land and the sea. After reading that this dolphin had wandered into the Gowanus Canal, I started to think about what else had wandered in there and died. I started to think about what used to live on Long Island and in Brooklyn, and I created a character that I thought would look—if you squinted at it—like a catfish, but it would also be made out of these many species of animals that have lost their lives for various reasons in and around that body of water. Then Tom Baione, the Director of Library Services at the Museum of Natural History, after I sent the image to him, told me, “Alexis, that’s a wonderful painting, but did you ever hear about the baby sperm whale that died in there?” I thought, What? I wish I’d known.
Rail: I’m intrigued by the sense that there’s always this allegory of painting itself, and in the “Gowanus” picture you have a drainpipe leaking pure blue and pure red streams of what can only be paint.
Rockman: It could be! It could be antifreeze. The purer the color, the less likely it is that it’s helpful for what’s living in there.
Rail: Does this in some ways implicate painting itself as part of the problem?
Rockman: I don’t want to lead the viewer in any of these issues; it’s too much fun to have a lot of people have their own ideas about it. I have some ideas, but there are many ways to read it, and that’s the wonderful thing about metaphor. [Laughs.]
Rail: That it lets you off the hook?
Rockman: Well, it lets you off the hook, or you’re as guilty as you can imagine!
Rail: Yet there’s a sense that art itself is a harbinger of excess, an index of accumulation.
Rockman: It needs care just like everything else, right?
Rail: Right, and that’s the more sanguine view of it, that artists and culture need care and feeding as much as the natural world does. But doesn’t this again put human beings in the position of the ultimate caretakers? Is this great responsibility and this sense of stewardship just a short prism shift away from the original desire to dominate nature?
Rockman: Absolutely, and we all know what the history of stewardship is—it’s not good.
Rail: Is it ever possible to overcome the history with which these ideas began? Going back to the idea of the zoo and the idea of stewardship, the responsibility that human beings have to protect and to manage their environment, both out of a pure self-interest, but also out of an idea of the kind of values that are embodied in this projection of oneself outside of that pure self-interest: Is there always that cynical nod that says, “you can never overcome this tainted history, you can never get away from the fact that a zoo is always this place that was built for human pleasure and represents this expansionist tendency and colonial ethos”?
Rockman: I’m forever hopeful, but I don’t see much indication of human behavior or policy changing.
Rail: Even with the endless array of philanthropic works and the immense numbers of well-meaning people that are out there writing about this, representing it, trying to do something about it?
Rockman: I think it’s so awesome and positive, but let me put it to you this way: if the climate change issue doesn’t have an effect—it’s such a devastating and enormous problem—I just don’t see how anything is going to change. I think it’s just going to be like a moth-eaten blanket that keeps getting eaten by silkworm larvae.
Rail: Again this projects a horizon where we can’t be in control of our own futures. We’re basically just doing what we’re doing until the next catastrophe hits.
Rail: That’s a bummer!
Rockman: It sucks! [Laughs.] I don’t know what else to tell you.
Rail: Life of Pi, as a storyline, is interesting in that respect because it really is a story about allegory.
Rockman: Right, and how stories can save you.
Rail: And about how the fabrication of an alternative world or an alternative universe—an alternative way of looking at things—can have a redemptive quality, even when it’s an incredible story of loss and absence and deprivation. But at the same time, succumbing to that despair is the thing that will kill you.
Rail: So perhaps that explains something about the epic paintings, about how there’s a pulling back: as much as they can be sublimely beautiful, at the same time they can be horrific—there’s something that pulls back from the despair. It doesn’t kill you that badly.
Rockman: You have to find ways to make it work. Making paintings like these sometimes take a year! And how do you cope with that? It’s a negotiation.
Rail: Has this body of work—the “Gowanus” painting, the “Bronx Zoo” painting, or even the new watercolors—opened up a new way of thinking about constructing paintings? I know you talked about the watercolors as having a set of technical things you had to figure out, and I imagine there will be more work in that medium, but what’s the next turn of the screw?
Rockman: I have some ideas, and I really feel positively seeing the work up. It made me happy. You work on things in bits and pieces and you plan it out, but when you see it up sometimes it can be fantastic. It had just the right balance of despair and elation.
ContributorJonathan T.D. Neil
Jonathan T. D. Neil is the founding Director of the Center for Art Business and Management at Claremont Graduate University. From 2011-15 he was Editor of the Held Essays on Visual Art for The Brooklyn Rail.