The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s newest exhibit showcases the beauty of the natural world, but with an ominous twist.
“Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow,” highlights painter Alexis Rockman’s incredible ability to paint the world around him in immense detail, while also expressing concern for the way the Earth is treated. The exhibit features 47 of Rockman’s paintings from his early career to the present and is the first major exhibit of his work.
Rockman’s paintings are a mixture of science fact and fiction, presenting the natural world in a way that can’t be seen anywhere else. He developed a fascination with nature while frequenting the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as a child and says he has an interest in sci-fi movies. Both influences are easily seen in his work.
“Paintings are a way of listing the things that I care about or am interested in,” Rockman said.
And what he cares about is obvious. There isn’t a single painting in the exhibit that doesn’t in some way express environmentalism, whether it is showing the power of nature, or what could happen if human beings neglect it.
Rockman paints on a grand scale, which increases the forboding nature of some of his works. Even his smaller works dwarf the viewer, allowing him to produce rich images that require close inspection to catch each tiny facet of the stories they tell.
“These are paintings that are packed with information and detail,” said Joanna Marsh, James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art for the museum.
That attention to information and detail is most evident in two of three large-scale mural paintings on display.
Rockman’s 1992 work “Evolution” is a prehistoric panorama depicting a menagerie of animals, living and extinct, real and imaginary. While the creatures go about their business, a volcano furiously erupts in the background. The painting shows how life on Earth might be if nature had evolved differently.
A more recent mural, 2004’s “Manifest Destiny,” gives viewers a glimpse into the future, bringing global warming into the picture. The view is of a brilliantly orange sunrise over Brooklyn, seen from across the East River in Manhattan. The familiar Brooklyn Bridge stretches across the river, but it’s been decaying and is now under water. Tropical sea creatures float through the water and around the buildings, which have been reduced to skeletons.
Rockman worked with architects and scientists to ensure the accuracy of the painting.
“I thought, ‘What would the abstract ideas of climate change literally do to your home?’” he said.
Rockman said he kept going with the decaying architecture theme for a while, until he found another subject: big weather.
In a series of paintings on paper, Rockman depicts massive weather systems that loom over miniature rural landscapes. The paintings convey the awe-inspiring and destructive power of nature and are hauntingly beautiful. These works depart from Rockman’s earlier hyper-detailed style, employing sweeping, watery brushstrokes. They send the message that no matter how much human beings try to control nature, nature is more than capable of striking back.
Despite his interest in preserving nature, Rockman is aware of the fact that many of the materials he uses can do just the opposite.
“I don’t think you can cross the street without living with the contradiction of living on planet Earth,” he said. “I take responsibility for what I do. When I get on a plane to go talk about global warming, the irony doesn’t escape me.”
“Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow” will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Eighth and F streets Northwest) until May 8.