Alexis Rockman graciously welcomed me into his Tribeca studio on two occasions this fall to talk about his work, natural (and personal) histories, and the natural world of the 21st century. Hanging in the studio was a series of large-scale watercolors related to a recent project entitled “The Great Lakes Cycle,” which looks at the environmental history, degradation and resilience of that particular ecosystem. Rockman’s work treats the often capricious and opportunistic human interventions in nature in paradoxical concurrence with abiding flora and fauna adapted to specific climes over centuries. His considerable body of work simultaneously critiques the seemingly inevitable dark outcome of such interventions while acknowledging that human beings are also part of nature itself. Consequently, his is not an easy read of the so-called Anthropocene. As this issue’s Guest Critic section focuses on the relationship between art and science, we took this chance to discuss, among other things, how the intertwining of the two might lead from an aesthetic imaginary toward an activist shift in the urgent concerns now facing environmental research and our culture at large.
Tom McGlynn (Rail): When did you become aware that your specific representational style was the one you’d settle on? Did you always favor this style? Did you ever work abstractly?
Alexis Rockman: I think I have an innate attraction to types of figuration, if I think about my childhood, but I also went through a period when I started painting in a so-called “serious” way out of art school, where I was trying to take myself seriously as an artist. I flirted with ideas about abstraction that had to do with color field painting and biomorphic surrealism. I tried to find my way into pictorialism through those, and got to a point where I just put those aside, took back some of the color field painting, and then dove into a type of figuration that I felt was unfamiliar in the contemporary landscape of the early ‘80s.
Rail: You have incorporated abstract backgrounds into your compositions, but you’ve also mentioned elsewhere that you consider the backgrounds as “a piece of history.”
Rockman: When I think about what is behind many of the subjects in the paintings—and I do think about it as an abstract space—it’s not only pictorial, it’s also a quotation (not in an ironic way) of things I’m interested in, in terms of their historical context.
Rail: You spoke in our first meeting about being influenced by a range of visual stimuli as a boy, drawing from such popular sources as the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History and the taxonomic presentation of flora and fauna in the Golden Field Guide series of books and other natural history compendiums. You described this in part as a “post-war cornucopia of abundance.” Is there a very specific set of references that encapsulate a generation of artists coming of age in the 1960s and ‘70s? I’m of a generation that can recall how the 1964/5 World’s Fair in New York shaped a certain utopic totality and a mashup of science with pop culture, combining dinosaurs with Dodges, for instance.
Rockman: Oh, absolutely. That World’s Fair was an artifact of pre-JFK assassination, planned as it was just prior. I consider that the end-point of post-war utopian America.
Rail: Yes, and to some degree it’s kind of the end-point of a “future-land” manic modernism. I was thinking about such publications as the Golden Field Guides and the How and Why Wonder Books of my own experience in terms of how science and the future was presented in a popular way.
Rockman: Yes, when you have an innate suspicion about institutional power, because of Vietnam and Watergate, you’re skeptical about the authority of “the man,” so to speak. Modernism in a sense had become “the man.” So all you’re left with is what you care about and love, and you find a way to experience the world through your own subjective worldview, which includes taxonomies. How you construct your body of work is about those sorts of things. When I was starting to figure out that I wanted to be a professional artist, artists like Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer created their own worldviews through German history. Polke looked at American pop culture and filtered his worldview through longing for the West from the East, and Kiefer looked through shame and guilt and grandiosity and ego.
Rail: In the context of this question, Polke is probably more appropriate in terms of filtering it through a Pop idiom. For our generation, there were the inevitable digests and encapsulations of nature in popular media.
Rockman: Well, I watched the “wonderful worlds” of Disney and Cousteau on television like everyone else. But I was also so painfully aware of the darkness that wasn’t shown, and the cruelty, not only of natural selection, but also of social Darwinism, which has justified so many terrible things. Humans are animals, and it’s a horrifying world. And that was about denial, and I felt that modernism was about denial also.
Rail: Other artists have worked specifically with the American Museum of Natural History, such as Smithson in his film Spiral Jetty (1970), or Hiroshi Sugimoto in his series of black and white photographs of a selection of dioramas, Dioramas (1974-2012). The dramatic, presentational context becomes a theatrical backdrop for them. This occurs most startlingly in Sugimoto’s photo of the Gemsbok diorama, in the Hall of African Mammals. He chose a diorama in which a large group of African antelopes seem to be posing for the camera. Sugimoto realized that these scenarios were in a sense already photographs. Sugimoto’s approach to the diorama as a readymade photograph is something you would have internalized, perhaps?
Rockman: My work was recently described as “overstated and theatrical,” and that’s something I embrace. I really do have those things in mind when I’m making most of my images. Less so with the watercolors, but even then, for example with a group portrait of fish endemic to the Great Lakes that would never be in that situation, it’s highly theatrical.
Rail: At the time, Sugimoto’s work was received in the context of postmodern re-photographing, as Sherrie Levine was then doing with Walker Evans.
Rockman: I wanted to re-photograph things that never existed, and that were the darker version of the official version.
Rail: Considering the path of your investigations, were you familiar with the work of Christy Rupp in the early 1980s? She became known for stickers of rats in the Times Square show in 1980. She also did a couple of shows at the then newly christened ABC No Rio entitled “Animals Living in Cities” (1980). You’ve had a similar interest in urban wildlife.
Rockman: I did go to that gallery, and the name rings a bell but I can’t put a finger on it. 1980 is right before I started to go look at art. My interest in that kind of thing came about five years later. I was having a conversation at that time with Mark Dion, who I met right after we both graduated from SVA. We knew of each other, but we didn’t believe that the other could possibly exist or be interesting because we thought we were so unique. We were mistaken. We talked about the idea that so much of the energy of conservation in the scientific discourse was about animals that were photogenic or charismatic or “worthy” of examination by the human or the scientific gaze. I wanted to invert that, subvert that, and have masterful paintings of things that were disgraced, or things that we hated about our landscape or ourselves. Rats, and these plants that are known as selected species, or weedy, or invasive or whatever—opportunistic—have many things in common, and one of the most important is that they are impossible to eradicate. Something about that was innately attractive to me, something again that undermined the status quo.
Rail: You’ve collaborated extensively with Mark Dion in the past. His work entails taking on the persona of an 18th or 19th century scientist. He’s used the term cryptozoologist.
Rockman: Yet cryptozoology is a much more specific thing: it’s the study of animals out of time, place or scale. Dion and I are not cryptozoologists. We have done projects about cryptozoology as a critique of it. The foremost cryptozoology scholar in a serious way is Loren Coleman, and he wrote books about the mythology of animals who are both real and exist—such as the okapi, which is the forest giraffe that was discovered in the Belgian Congo in 1901—and about Bigfoot, which doesn’t exist. It’s about the sociological phenomenon of the beliefs and why they believe them. It doesn’t include UFOs because that’s something else.
Rail: I suppose I misunderstood the term as the definition of a kind of meta-scientific posture that you and Dion share.
Rockman: Not completely. We were in a book called “Cryptozoology,” and an exhibition up in Maine together. But Mark would tell you—you keep a very healthy distance from that stuff. Let’s just say I’m a “natural history enthusiast” interested in a cosmography of natural history.
Rail: Dion seems to favor a very specific epoch in the 18th century, just prior to the fully- realized Enlightenment sciences (where stricter taxonomic systems get codified) in which the artist correlates his practice with his kind of amateur collector. This amateur discursively explores what might be called a proto-cryptozoologist approach toward science. It doesn’t really resemble our modern sciences but plays out more as a private folly. I’m only bringing it up because I think there’s actually room for crackpot ideology. Not to say that either you or Dion are crackpots, but there’s a certain kind of dialogue that happens in the scientific community that puts limits on a discursive social dialogue about, for instance, your interest in the dark side, or the downside of these things. Modern science has traditionally put empirical investigation into its own type of cabinet of curiosities. Like an idealized empirical aquarium of research purity.
Rockman: Yet Dion has made such cabinets that include plastics retrieved from the North Atlantic. It’s using the idea of specimen collection for the most disgraced and degraded byproducts of our culture. And he would put it in an enormous cabinet or display case and organize it according to shapes, function, and material. There’s more of an urgency now than ever to be an activist and to have a way of reaching a kind of collective cultural expansiveness. I attended a panel last week at Northern Michigan University discussing the responsibility of the scientists to either keep polemics and politics out of their work or become activists. I have an opinion about that. I think that scientists have feelings, and they’ve been trained not to express them because it’s been very much about delivering data and forming policy. Their job is to deliver information and have other people weighing the data with social and economic challenges that may arise from these dynamics. When you have an administration or a government that refuses, institutionally, to embrace empirical science, then all bets are off and you have to be an activist.
Rail: The state administration of science has been troubled to say the least. That’s what I meant in bringing up the discursive freedom of the 18th century amateur scientist. There’s an aspect of the amateur which is unbridled, un-administered, and not partitioned by disciplines.
Rockman: Well it’s also polymathic, if that’s a word. Being more of a generalist. That’s one of the reasons I was never attracted to formal academics.
Rail: The advantages of being a crypto– or and amateur scientist or zoologist as opposed to being somebody who might have to satisfy the terms of a research grant…
Rockman: Absolutely. Or dedicated scientists dealing with people who are above them in a power context. And this is actually a good lead-in to something that is very simple, which is one of the greatest things about being an artist: you control your own production to deal with ideas and information that may not have a voice in any other context because it’s too dangerous.
Rail: Who are the writers on nature or science who have inspired you or from which you are painting? Do you consider the biological sciences preeminent in getting close to our actual experience of the everyday world of nature and culture?
Rockman: Stephen Jay Gould was a friend and a true inspiration. Rachel Carson has also been important, as has been Bill McKibben. Bill Bryson I particularly like because he’s more of a generalist.
Rail: Your most recent project was a series of five paintings collectively titled The Great Lakes Cycle, and is slated to open at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan from January 27th to April 29th, 2018. Could you talk about the kind of research that went into this project and where it took you in terms of paintings?
Rockman: Having been asked to do something that was a dream project and a commitment of significant time, I thought “Well, the Great Lakes is a thing that I know enough about to just know that it’s interesting, and not much more.” So I explained to Dana Friis-Hansen, the organizer of the project, that I would need to spend a couple of months reading about the ecological history of the lakes, and then go on a field trip where I would spend a couple of weeks driving around Lake Michigan, and have her staff set up an itinerary where I could meet with various people from fisherman to historians at the lighthouse museum to ichthyologists at Northern Michigan University. That would be the ideal situation. Then I would come back to my studio and think about what I wanted to do, and write a proposal about each of the five paintings, and we would take it from there.
Rail: So, a polymathic approach.
Rockman: First it would be casting a net as wide as possible and finding out what might be interesting to include in the work, ideas and issues that need to be addressed, and then make lists,and do some diagrams with arrows.
Rail: I find it interesting that you mention fisherman and not just scientists—you mention people who have a visceral, everyday experience.
Rockman: Yes, I went fishing; I chartered a boat and went out and caught some steelhead and some lake trout. I asked them about how things had changed, and they weren’t particularly old—they were fourty-something—but I wanted to know what they knew. And both the fish I caught were stocked, which I didn’t know. I talked to them about the history of fishing, just to get a sense of how these lakes interact with the world. I didn’t work on a cargo ship for instance, it was just a chance to get on the water and get a sense for what it is.
Rail: You similarly researched your mural-size painting South, which is currently in the rambling show curated by the Rail’s publisher, Phong Bui, at Mana Contemporary. Titled “Artists Need to Create at the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy,” the show operates on the concept that monumental, ideologically capacious projects by artists might be an appropriately-scaled response to the political upheaval we are currently experiencing in this country and globally. What would you say is your own relation to scale in this sense? Do you see your larger commissions as directly addressing the public in this urgent way? What about your relationship to scale as a means of public address as opposed to some of your more intimate watercolors? There seems a difference in the volume of address in each.
Rockman: I think that’s true. I’ve made public projects and domestic projects. And I’m working on a domestic project now. Sometimes the work needs to be bigger than your body because it’s about things that are bigger than your body. I don’t believe that bigger is more important, but the idea of the sublime and epic…it’s often well served if it’s epic and sublime in scale.
Rail: I was thinking of scale in terms of some of the social activism of the Mexican muralists, of Diego Rivera for instance.
Rockman: Sure, coming from the history of fresco painting. Absolutely. That’s a tradition I at least like to embrace on some level. And Diego Rivera was very important because he was the Trojan horse, sneaking in these socialist ideas into capitalist, money-funded projects. Like the
Rockefeller Center murals that were destroyed. I also just saw the amazing José Orozco project The Epic of American Civilization murals at Dartmouth.
Rail: Your work is highly technical within a certain illustrative tradition yet simultaneously loose and phenomenally active. Can you explain your approach to specific mediums and how they may inflect your subject matter and meaning? I’m looking at this picture [on the studio wall] of a bull moose standing in a lake which melts into a kind of abstraction. How the mediums negotiate the pictorial aspect is an active part of your approach.
Rockman: It’s never been a resolved thing. It’s just about how to put together a picture—an image—that has this duality of viscera and pictorialism. I think about what might work, based on what I’ve done, and then it never does what it’s supposed to do, so you have to be willing to be surprised.
Rail: At times you seem willing to employ satire that approaches camp, as a critique of the banal, hyperbolic aspect of consumerism and the commercial fetishization of nature. In your painting Sea World, from 2004, a prehistoric fish of the Devonian period, the Dunkleosteus, is substituted for a performing dolphin or killer whale.
Rockman: I’m not really interested in camp. In the Sea World piece I obviously was thinking about performing animals, and I wanted to think about what was the most badass thing that would literally eat the fucking trainer. It becomes doubly ironic, too, because I was making fun of the film Jurassic Park, sort of, and it came to pass that the latest film in that franchise, Jurassic World, came along with a scene pretty much based on my painting. It was particularly satisfying and kind of strange.
Rail: Since this issue of the Rail is dedicated to the interface between science and art, can you explain how you feel about empirical exploration and art as a medium of social activism? You have mentioned that with the role of the didactic in today’s political landscape, perhaps, an educational or direct approach to political events might actually be what’s needed, rather than a more nuanced approach, given the unhinged, virtual aesthetic being promulgated by the radical right in this country at the moment. You have said, very demonstratively, that faced with this kind of virtual right-wing “tidal wave of bullshit,” what is needed is more educational didacticism.
Rockman: I’m not sure what the right answer to that is. Obviously I think education is our only hope, but how do you engage generations that can barely look away from their smartphones for thirty seconds, let alone are interested in something that is a painting and that’s didactic? So I think how do you draw people into a pictorial idiom? You have to find ways to be engaging, and I don’t know if it’s successful or not, but I want to embrace every trick in the book to get there.