Alexis Rockman’s baroque, psychedelic paintings capture our eroding environment.
Portrait & Studio Photographs by Christopher Garcia Valle
“I have a lot of anger and anxiety and sadness and also love,” Alexis Rockman says. The artist is talking about the environmental calamity that fuels his complex work, an oeuvre of ominous, baroque, pop art–inspired wildlife paintings, which evoke John James Audubon, if John James Audubon liked to watch Godzilla movies and drop acid. Rockman’s sitting on a bench in Tribeca, outside the same sparse, utilitarian studio he’s been occupying for the past 30 years. “Oh fuck you!” he screams to a passing off-duty fire truck, whose driver leans on the horn a few excruciating beats too long.
Rockman, 56, has reason to be irritable. It’s a sweltering summer morning, a Monday, and last week he buried his beloved dog of 13 years, a pitbull-lab mix named Padme, after the Star Wars princess. Today, he’s running on fumes thanks to the one-two punch of a late-night Chicago opening of his “Great Lakes Cycle”—five sprawling tableaux depicting the ecological evolution (and subsequent degradation) of North America’s greatest bodies of fresh water—followed by a delayed flight back to New York. After this interview wraps, he’ll be playing a game of hoops—something the former athlete does almost daily—and then he’s off with his wife and two children to Ménerbes, a hilltop walled village in Provence, where the restless artist has produced some of his best recent work.
“If you make stuff about ecology and you’re living in New York City, how can you not be inspired by travel?” says Rockman, a New York native. His deadpan is inarguably charming.
Indeed, travel encompasses a large part of Rockman’s painstaking process, one that begins with a journalistic hunger for facts and truths, and ultimately leads to him embedding with archeologists, anthropologists, and various locals during extended, Indiana Jones–esque field visits. Over the years, these have come in the form of everything from far-flung death marches to midnight hikes in Madagascar with lemur conservationists.
Rockman took a similar tack for his Great Lakes Cycle series. He sailed across Lake Michigan, explored the area’s defunct copper mines. He even joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents dispatched to control sea lampreys, a breed of bloodsucking, eel-like fish that invaded the Great Lakes in the mid-1800s and have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem ever since.
Each of the resulting 12-foot-wide, wood-paneled oil paintings unfurls like a horrific hyper-lapse of the eroding millennia. On the left, you begin with pristine glaciers, schools of indigenous fish, migrating caribou; on the right, the inevitable destruction of sunken planes and ships, armadas of floating timber, the toxic green runoff of factory farms and cities. And while there are no humans present in any of these works, the message is clear: Behold the death and destruction mankind wrought.
“As someone said to me last night in Chicago, ‘You’re not really making paintings about the good news,’” Rockman says with a sardonic laugh. Even he admits to often feeling empty and depressed after dealing with the cruel, unvarnished truths depicted. “And that’s kinda the point. It’s like I don’t see any good news. If you’re into ecology, you’re in fucking dreamland if you think that there’s good news anymore.”
He talks about climate change, over-fishing, the cognitive dissonance he feels being an environmental activist who still eats meat. But while Rockman’s ecological anxiety is ever-present in his work, there are other influences in play, too. Having grown up a city kid, Rockman loved escaping to Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History, marveling at the dioramas and dinosaur fossils. Yet he was equally content losing himself in the darkness of a theater, watching monster movie matinees and sci-fi flicks. If you look closely, this is evident in his work, too.
“I’m so comfortable with my unconscious,” Rockman says. While field research is key to his art, so is forgetting everything he’s learned and allowing his subconscious—one bursting with russet, post-apocalyptic sunsets, ruined cities, and creepy-crawly things that go bump in the night—take over the process. “It’s all the same bouillabaisse of stuff.”
It’s this equilibrium of the methodical and the loose-on-the-reins that begets Rockman’s distinct and deliberate style, something he describes as “almost taboo, like very seductive paintings about decay and mortality.” What you’re left with are beautiful and intricate series like “Rubicon,” vibrant oils of animals—some familiar, some grotesquely mutated—taking over vast, abandoned cityscapes. Or “American Icons,” a lucid series of rotting landmarks including Disney World and the Hollywood sign, which to Rockman represent ideas about “tourism and disgraced symbols of American imperialism and success.”
But Rockman’s work isn’t all so ominous. In 2009, he collaborated with Academy Award–winning film director Ang Lee on the trippy aquatic visuals for Life of Pi; more recently, he produced New Mexico Field Drawings, a collection of spontaneous and lyrical drawings of the high-desert flora and fauna outside Santa Fe. For each, Rockman bagged and tagged unique soil samples, then used their pigments for his sketches. It’s a technique he developed some 25 years ago when his art supplies ran out while traveling in the Amazon. Not only does it lend his work a sense of organic authenticity, but the materials allow him to return to the place he’s painting. “When I do the field drawings, I’m using the place I’m longing for,” he says. “The work is literally made out of that place.”
Unsurprisingly, places are a preoccupation for Rockman. He rattles off those he longs to see, or see again: Tasmania, Borneo, New Guinea, Antarctica, numerous locales in Central and Southern America. Then, just as quickly, his mind is back in New York City. “Did you know there are jackrabbits at JFK [airport] under the runway?” he notes. Apparently, there were walruses at Jones Beach 10,000 years ago. “I revel in the idea of life in unexpected places.”
As if on cue, Rockman’s attention zeroes in on a dragonfly. He stares in genuine wonder, and you can see him mentally cataloging the insect’s otherworldly anatomy, its crepe-paper wings, its pixelated compound eyes. “Hey, check this out,” he shouts at a passing stranger on the sidewalk, a flood of enthusiasm cracking his cast of cynicism. “There’s a beautiful dragonfly right here!”