Alexis Rockman, The Pelican, 2006, oil on wood, Courtesy Elizabeth Schwartz, New York. © Alexis Rockman. Photo courtesy of the artist

From November 19 2010 to May 8 2011 – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Alexis Rockman (b. 1962) has been depicting the natural world with virtuosity and wit for more than two decades. 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. His work expresses deep concerns about the world’s fragile ecosystems and the tension between nature and culture. These concerns are communicated through vivid, even apocalyptic, imagery. Rockman has garnered attention for embracing these issues, as well as for the epic quality of his projects, including several monumentally scaled paintings.
The title of the exhibition, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” is taken from the opening chapter of Rachel Carson’s influential 1962 book Silent Spring. In it, Carson combines two seemingly incompatible literary genres—mythic narrative and factual reportage. Rockman approaches his paintings with a similar intent. He achieves his vision through a synthesis of fantasy and empirical fact, using sources as varied as natural history, botanical illustrations, museum dioramas, science fiction films, realist art traditions dating back to the Renaissance and firsthand field study. The exhibition is organized by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art. “Alexis Rockman’s cross-disciplinary approach is well suited to the Smithsonian’s long tradition of embracing science and art as complementary ways of understanding our world,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“During the past 25 years, Rockman’s art and attitudes have evolved from a focus on the mysteries of nature to the machinations of mankind,” said Marsh. “His artworks demonstrate a steadfast belief in the power of art, literature and film to raise consciousness about key environmental issues. Rockman stands out among the generation of artists who have taken up the mantle of environmental activism for the originality of his vision and the urgency of his message. Through the use of emotionally charged visual ideas—death, decay, ruin and renewal—Rockman has created a stunning body of work that is a reflection of our times and a portent of events to come.”
Throughout his career, Rockman has developed subjects and themes in series. “Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow” marks the first time that key paintings from different projects are exhibited together, beginning with the lyrical “Pond’s Edge” (1986), drawn from the artist’s earliest series exploring the field of natural history, to “The Reef” (2009), part of his most recent body of work titled “Half Life,” which combines color-field abstraction and environmental concerns.
The exhibition includes three large-scale paintings that are ambitious turning points in Rockman’s artistic development. “Evolution” (1992), Rockman’s first mural-sized painting, is a panoramic sweep that owes as much to a pop cinema stylistic sensibility as it does to actual prehistory.

Manifest Destiny, 2003–2004 Oil and acrylic wood Courtesy of the Artist and Waqas Wajahat, New York © Alexis Rockman Photo courtesy of the artist

“Manifest Destiny” (2003-2004), commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, depicts an apocalyptic vision of the Brooklyn waterfront submerged as the result of global warming. “South” (2008), an epic panorama drawn from the artist’s observations while on a trip to Antarctica, documents every aspect of iceberg geology through simultaneous views above and below the water’s surface.
In 1994, Rockman journeyed into the dense South American jungle of Guyana. Several paintings from this series, including “Bromeliad: Kaieteur Falls” (1994), “Kapok Tree” (1995) and “Host and Vector” (1996), are on display in the exhibition. These paintings are distinguished from Rockman’s other work by his decision to invent nothing and paint only the flora and fauna found in the rain forest. Elements in the works recall 19th-century Hudson River school landscapes by John Kensett and the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade. Rockman returned to Guyana in 1998, when his previous interest in field observation was replaced by a fascination with pop-culture representations of ecotourism and the exotic allure of adventure travel. The resulting series, titled “Expedition,” includes paintings such as “The Hammock” (2000), which includes compositional elements that recall classic
science fiction films. Rockman’s “Big Weather” drawings from 2005 to 2008 mark a major stylistic shift toward abstraction. Executed on heavily gessoed sheets of paper, the painted surface is awash in vivid stains, pours, pools and drips. Rockman’s new focus on process is also evident in the artist’s most recent body of work, “Half-Life.” The “Half-Life” paintings, inspired by the techniques of Color Field artist SI-366A-2010 3 Morris Louis (1912-1962), are dominated by large veils of viscous pigment and loose, improvisational brushstrokes.

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