Alexis Rockman, A Fable for Tomorrow

A Fable for Tomorrow is the perfect subtitle for a must-see exhibition currently on display until May 8, 2011 at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, DC of the wondrous and powerful art of Alexis Rockman (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F Street (NW), Washington DC, 202.633.7970 [http://americanart.si.edu/].  After Washington, DC, the exhibition will be on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the campus of the Ohio State University at 1871 North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, 614.292.0330, from September 24, 2011 through January 1, 2012 (http://www.wexarts.org/).  If you don’t have the opportunity of seeing this exhibition in person, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has published on the occasion of the exhibition a beautifully illustrated catalog, Alexis Rockman, A Fable for Tomorrow by Joanna Marsh, with contributions by Kevin J. Avery & Thomas Lovejoy (D Giles Limited, London, UK, 2010, in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum) of 176 pages, with 110 color and 6 black and white illustrations ($49.95/$35 soft cover) [http://www.americanart.si.edu/visit/stores/online/books/?ID=376].

A Fable for Tomorrow, the subtitle for the exhibition, comes from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, New York, 1962, copyright renewed 1990).  In the first chapter of Silent Spring entitled “A Fable for Tomorrow,” Rachel Carson “combines two seemingly incompatible literary genres- mythic narrative and factual reportage- to make real the hazard of toxins such as DDT” in the words of Joanna Marsh, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who conceived this survey of Rockman’s artwork and wrote the catalog essay.

The exhibition includes forty-seven artworks that trace the career of Alexis Rockman, who grew up in New York City and maintains his studio in Lower Manhattan.  Mr. Rockman’s second home has been Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History, and his paintings all have extraordinary details and reflect his intimate knowledge of the natural world.  But the world he has painted for our study is a shocking, post-apocalyptic natural world.  Its effect on the viewer is profound and deeply distressing, and like Silent Spring, a call for action.

In his painting, The Farm, Mr. Rockman addresses the transformation of farming through introduction of genetic engineering.  His wide-angle view of a soybean field, stretching to a blue horizon includes eerie depictions of genetically modified chickens, pigs and cows, with a basket of oddly shaped red tomatoes in the foreground, worthy of Salvador Dali.  The artist’s choice of a soybean field as his subject is apt since soybeans are the most common, genetically modified crop.  In his Still Life, the artist brilliantly mimics Dutch game pictures from the 17th century.  But Rockman’s Still Life includes a two headed brown rabbit and a grossly elongated hare, as well as a strangely regal creature known in myth as a wolpertinger, a small hare like critter that has the head, body, and feet of a hare with bird wings, antlers and fangs, scary indeed.  In Manifest Destiny, the artist depicts the Brooklyn waterfront ravaged by global warming with two degrading bridges underwater, making for a chilling use of the term “manifest destiny,” the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  But even more troubling: Alexis Rockman has visualized in his extraordinary paintings of mutated and damaged natural worlds the nightmarish consequences if we ignore the words of Albert Schweitzer, who is quoted by Rachel Carson in her dedication of Silent Spring:  “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall.  He will end by destroying the earth.”  Mr. Rockwell’s artistic exploration of climate change, evolutionary biology and genetic engineering deserves wide attention:  He has foreseen  and painted a future that must be forestalled  (http://www.alexisrockman.net/).  [FWB, 3/16/11].

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