For more than two decades, Alexis Rockman has been depicting the natural world with virtuosity and wit. He was one of the first contemporary artists to build his career around exploring environmental issues, from evolutionary biology and genetic engineering to deforestation and climate change. Artist, Rail Art Books in Review Editor, and Guest Critic Greg Lindquist spoke with Rockman at his Tribeca studio about his recent paintings depicting ecological issues of the Great Lakes, and the extent to which art and culture can inspire direct action.
Greg Lindquist (Rail): Do you think that your paintings inspire action and change with regards to ecological crises?
Rockman: I would have to confess that I do, but I have a sense of fatigue from hoping that, and there’s a level of futility in that it only helps me cope with what I know. I spend a lot of energy learning about things that are disturbing, that I’m ambivalent or upset about, and that helps me cope with them; it’s a feedback loop. The project that I’m working on in this room is about the Great Lakes. And it’s two of five large paintings about issues that the lakes have faced and will face in the future, ecologically.
Rail: Can you give some examples of those?
Rockman: Well, the painting that’s on the floor is about resources that humans have extracted from the lakes and the watershed from Pleistocene hunters and reindeer, to the fishing industry, to the introduction of salmon into the Great Lakes for recreational fishing, timber mining, and so forth.
Rail: Are there specific responses or results—either indirect or direct—that your paintings have had that are instructive for you?
Rockman: I learned that people I idolize are human, which gives me confidence in what I’m doing. What I do isn’t for everyone, and I don’t think anything worth doing is for everyone. But I have a tremendous responsibility as an artist. I see the tradition that I’m coming from as civil rights, not to say that I suffer as much as black people did during the civil rights era, but I’m saying that the environmental movement needs activists, in the tradition of civil rights, feminism, gay rights, and so on. I think that the environmental movement has had a pitiful track record of having charismatic leaders.
Rail: Did you ever at any point want to be a leader in that movement?
Rockman: I think to do that you have to be very patient, and since I’m an only child who spends most of my time alone [Laughs.] I have enough of a struggle to have my family tolerate me. I don’t see myself doing well in long-term public situations out of town.
Rail: Do you think art can successfully influence policy change for climate and environmental issues?
Rockman: I tend to think that art, as we categorize fine art in our culture, cannot. It can—perhaps—on very modest levels. But I think that movies and other popular media can, which is something I’ve taken upon myself to do. I see myself as not just an artist, but a storyteller. I’m working on a project with a writer with Amazon Studios about the conservation movement.
I was deeply affected by The China Syndrome, which came out in 1978, when I was sixteen. In combination with Three Mile Island Meltdown, a groundswell of negativity was created that the nuclear industry in America never recovered from. I think we need something similar to happen for the climate-change issue—something that is so powerful that it cannot be explained away by clowns. It has to be visceral and powerful, and I think movies and television could be that type of format. If there’s any hope, I think it’s that. It’s obviously unlikely that anything can save the world. So many of our problems are because of our evolutionary history that we can’t get out of our own way.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist and writer, and will be participating in the 2017-18 Whitney Museum of Arts Independent Study Programs Studio Program.