Alexis Rockman’s Very Clear Agenda

Alexis Rockman Mark Segal

For 30 years, Alexis Rockman has rendered the natural world, producing both detailed oil paintings depicting the dystopian consequences of climate change, genetic engineering, and industrial pollution, and more immediate field drawings of plants and animals encountered on his travels.

“East End Field Drawings” at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill represents 85 plant and animal species, all made with sand, soil, or organic material collected from 18 sites between Bridgehampton and Montauk. The drawings are not actually created on site but in his studio, in part because birds in flight or schools of fish are unwilling subjects.

“I’ll get images anywhere I can find them,” he said. “Some are things I see, but there are many things not on the Internet or anywhere. For example, it’s very difficult to find a reference for mosquitos in flight.”

Among the places he has visited are Guyana, Antarctica, the Los Angeles tar pits, Tasmania, and the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The Los Angeles field drawings were made with tar on gessoed paper, while wombat fecal matter and acrylic polymer were the mediums used in his drawing of a Tasmanian wombat.

Mr. Rockman’s interest in the natural world has its roots in his childhood in New York City. His mother, Diane diZerega Wall, an anthropology professor and historical archeologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, worked early in her career as Margaret Mead’s secretary at the American Museum of Natural History.

“She loved animals and humans, and I was mesmerized and wanted to recreate with living things the types of things I saw at the museum.” He pointed to the wall in the Parrish’s lobby gallery where the field drawings will be on view through Jan. 18. “I was always drawing frogs. That spring peeper over there is very much like a pose in a drawing I made when I was 5 years old.”

His interest waned in the ninth grade, when “I decided girls and basketball were where it was at. After high school I realized I should go to some kind of art school, because there was no other place for me. However, art was very minimal and conceptual at the time and I felt no affinity with that.”

His interest in film and animation led him to the Rhode Island School of Design and then to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “I found my way into the art department because that’s where the smartest people were.” Meanwhile, by the time he entered S.V.A. in 1983, the art world had changed, with a younger generation having moved away from formalism toward work that was political, personal, and expressive.

“Even as a kid, I knew the history of extinction, what had already happened to animals and plants. I felt it was a fascinating moment to bring that to a fine-art context. I knew Barbara Kruger very early on, and since she and other artists were doing political work, I saw a niche for something nobody else was doing.”

While the natural world has been Mr. Rockman’s focus from the outset, he noted that he has deliberately changed his approach in terms of the language of painting. “If you look at a painting from 1986, I’d paint a turtle on the acrylic ground and it would be dripping and oozing. The field drawings involve a type of muscle I used in my paintings when they were less complicated.” Along the way he spent two years making dioramas, one of which, “Golf Course,” includes trash, Astroturf, golf balls, soil, and a cast plastic human femur, among other components.

By the early 1990s he was producing detailed, often panoramic oil paintings on wood, and has continued to do so, combining a scientist’s knowledge of the natural world with a seemingly inexhaustible visual imagination. The result is a fact-based but frightening vision of the myriad horrific ways climate change, genetic mutations, and pollution are likely to alter the landscape, urban spaces, and the plants and animals that inhabit them. “What I’m doing and need to do has a very clear agenda,” he said. “I end up painting very meticulous things.”

Mr. Rockman’s project brings to mind the dystopian fiction of the English writer J.G. Ballard, especially such early novels as “The Drowned World” from 1962, in which solar radiation has caused the polar ice caps to melt and the worldwide temperature to soar.

In 2009, the film director Ang Lee asked Mr. Rockman to help him develop the look of his film "Life of Pi." "My friend Jean Castelli had been working with Ang since the mid-1990s, and I knew he was working on 'Life of Pi.' After I met Ang and read the script, he told me things he needed help with. He had to show the studio his vision. So I developed the island and that underwater sequence, which didn't exist yet, and some other stuff. I made five elaborate watercolors.”

The artist is working on several other projects, including one with Mr. Castelli, that involve film. “Those projects would have been impossible even five years ago, so I would say the awareness of climate change has increased dramatically. But that should have happened 20 years ago. There are so many powerful forces of capitalism that have just destroyed the earth. Not that communism would have done a better job. It’s really human nature. I’m so furious and sad about all that stuff that it’s why I do what I do.”

Mr. Rockman first came to the East End in the late 1980s. Since 2003, he and Dorothy Spears, a writer who contributes regularly to The New York Times, Art in America, and other publications, have been renting in Sag Harbor when not in the city. "The East End project had been gestating in my brain somewhere for a while before I went ahead with it last year," he said.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Parrish selected Mr. Rockman as its second artist-in-residence. He spent the week of Dec. 14 leading over 400 students in hands-on workshops to create original field drawings using materials they gathered from sites of their own choosing -— usually their backyards. A visitor to the museum’s theater that week found the artist with some 75 students from the Riverhead Charter School, answering questions and responding to the drawings they were busy making.

“The reason I did this project,” he said, “was because I’ve gone all over the world and done this kind of thing — the field drawings — so why don’t I do it where I spend most of my time. It was a great opportunity to learn what’s out here. Part of my pitch to the museum was that it would be educational, which it is, and which is really what I care about.”

The field drawings are not only a stylistic alternative to paintings that are densely populated with plants and animals surviving and mutating in a dystopian future, they also take the artist out of the studio. Several weeks ago he went on a field trip with the curator of collections at the Museum of Natural History to go fossil hunting in the five boroughs.

“We found a mastodon in northern Manhattan, a walrus on Rockaway Beach, a phytosaur in the Palisades, and a squirrel in my backyard.”

Alexis Rockman has been very active at the Parrish Art Museum on the occasion of the installation of his “East End Field Drawings” exhibition. During the week of Dec. 14, he led a number workshops for students and their families at the museum.Mark Segal
Alexis Rockman’s “Newtown Creek” shows a dystopian future experienced more in the artist’s head than out in the field.