Being an Artist Means Dealing with Information that makes the Rest of our Culture Uncomfortable

Evolution, 1992, oil on wood, 96 x 288 in

Alexis Rockman received a BFA in Fine Arts at SVA in 1985. In the thirty years since, he has been creating figurative paintings depicting natural history in its past, present and future tenses. These works convey the epic story of life on Earth and humanity’s callous yet dependent relationship with it, a keen knowledge of art history, and an obvious concern for raising awareness of environmental issues. Alexis is currently a mentor for SVA’s MFA Art Practice program.

BRYAN ANTHONY MOORE A lot has been written about your mother working at the American Museum of Natural History while you were growing up and how formative your frequent childhood visits to the museum were. What do you see as the role of the natural history museum?

ALEXIS ROCKMAN In our increasingly urban and technological landscape, they are a sort of doorway or a gateway for a lot of kids, and for a lot of people to understand what’s left of the biodiversity on earth and humans’ historical relationship to it.

It’s an introduction to the world that used to exist and still exists in pockets, and the relationship of human activity to that.

BAM You and I have discussed filmmakers and animators such as Stanley Kubrick and Ray Harryhausen. In your work some of the large pieces have a cinematic feel. Can you discuss how cinema and animation have influenced your work? What are your favorite films? Are there any films that you feel were formative or influential to your practice?

AR Those are several very different questions that you just asked.

Let’s talk about formative films. I was attracted to a lot of seemingly disparate things that would include, as you mentioned, Ray Harryhausen, not so much Kubrick when I was very young; I probably didn’t get it when I was a ten year old. As a child I loved Willis O’Brien’s films, Harryhausen, Warner Brothers cartoons and even Disney stuff, you know, typical stuff. I found it a very vivid and exciting world to escape into; feeling that I had a sort of lonely childhood being an only child, and so on and so forth.

In terms of my big paintings, I think that they deal with cinema on a certain level, but film time and painting time are so different that I don’t see that there is much of a connection besides the anamorphic format. I love the idea of making paintings that are bigger than the human body, like cinema, but I don’t really see them having that much in common. But to contradict myself, the idea that admitting that you’re a storyteller on some level in painting, at this point in history, is kind of a dirty word. Working with Ang Lee on Life of Pi and seeing how he dealt with my ideas and integrated them into the movie taught me a lot about simplicity and how to say things that are very complicated in a simple way, and that you only need to say it once.

That’s not to say that my work stopped being sort of Baroque and very rich iconographically, or shall we say, dense, but I learned a lot about how to tell a story.

BAM Let’s talk more about the scale of some of your work. Your paintings often have this epic scale that’s evocative of a history painting, yet they frequently take place in a future tense.

AR Right now I’m working on a painting that goes back 12,000 years and is probably in the future several hundred years; so it can be all things simultaneously. It’s a time-line from left to right.

I’d say the one thing that I’ve noticed over the years — and it’s the difference between what I’ve been doing and continue to do, and sort of normal painting and normal history painting — is there’s a sense of insane intimacy in the work, [in] the paintings that I make, no matter how big they are. You can fall into them in a way that I haven’t really seen so much in enormous paintings. There are a lot of much broader strokes.

I was just looking at the Thomas Hart Benton cycle at the Met, which was fascinating. Thomas Hart Benton is someone that growing up, even though I violently opposed Clement Greenberg, I always believed of Thomas Hart Benton, that all he was good for, was being Jackson Pollock’s reactionary (laughing) mentor. He’s never been high on my list.

One of the things I realized, and this was probably my gateway drug into all of this, was someone like Grant Wood, who, if you only know American Gothic, it’s an iconographic painting, but let’s face it, who cares, right? But his insane spatial games with his landscapes are so fascinating and that got me thinking that Thomas Hart Benton might be more interesting than I thought. There’s a cycle of capitalism [Benton’s America Today Murals] at the Met, which is fascinating in terms of its design, very art deco. It was part of the New School, he did it basically for free meals during the depression and to see it restored and in a very glamorous context and to see it taken seriously made a lot of sense right now. And I thought, I’m starting this five painting cycle about the history and future of the Great Lakes. I’ve been dealing with time and capitalism. There’s a lot more overlap than we care to admit in the past. I love the history of history painting but there are a lot of things that I want to do differently.

BAM Last week a study was published about what researchers think are bacterial, fungal, viral, and protist genes that have been horizontally transferred into the human genome and the genomes of other complex animals throughout our evolutionary history. This immediately started me thinking about your paintings that depict a pig fucking waterfowl or different species of animals mating. There is definitely a sense of humor that comes through in your work. Can you talk about the role of humor in your work?

AR Humor is one of the great escape valves for anxiety. Humor can always tell the truth, sneak the truth in through the back door, so to speak, in a way that is probably much more palatable. Humor and horror are flip sides to the same coin and I’m attracted to horror as well. I just think it’s a great way to get at ideas, to be over the top. You can disarm people with a sense of frankness that is not that common in our culture. There is obviously a long tradition of people like Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, the way he dealt with racism, the way The Producers dealt with the legacy of Nazi Germany, Richard Pryor, Key and Peele, and so on and so forth. There are ways of dealing with serious ideas that are much more — You attract more sympathy and identification through humor.

The Trough, 1992, oil on wood panel, 40 x 48 in

BAM Can you talk about the role that travel and documentation play in your artwork?

AR The thing I’m doing about the Great Lakes is about these field trips. It’s an attempt to have authenticity. How can you make paintings about a place unless you know what’s going on? At least, on a most superficial level, you have to go there. I’ve been in the jungle for two months and I’ve been on multiple trips to the Great Lakes for a week here and there. I go as much as I can handle in terms of the rest of my life, until I’m really sick of it and have to start the project. I feel like if I know anything more I’m just going to get confused.

BAM That’s a good way to think about it.

AR I’m going to Toronto next week, someone said to me, “Do you want to talk to any scientists”? I said “Hell no! I don’t want to get confused now. I know what I’m doing”.

BAM Right. So your travel does have a documentarian aspect. In a way is your travel in the tradition of someone like Audubon?

AR Alexander Von Humboldt, the adventurer-traveler, you know. Obviously if you’re staying at the Best Western it’s a little cushier than, you know, It has it’s own grind (laughing), Lewis and Clark. It’s by no means the type of hardship that these people had to deal with. I’ve been on very tough trips like the ones to South America or Madagascar but I tend to do those less and less the older I get. I don’t need to — you know The River of Doubt? I just finished reading it. Teddy Roosevelt sort of put himself through this ordeal to find the River of Doubt and it almost killed him, and it did eventually kill him a couple of years after he got back. I got to the point of  [realizing] how hard those things are and I appreciate the people who’ve done them, but I think making art is hard enough.

BROMELIAD: Kaieteur Falls, 1994, oil and lacquer on wood, 40 x 32 in

BAM Right. I don’t know exactly how to phrase what I want to ask but …

AR Just go for it.

BAM I know that you’re not going someplace that no Westerner has ever been, but in a way aren’t you continuing that documentarian tradition because it’s such a different time and there are huge man-made changes happening to the planet?

AR Yeah, you know, one of the things that I really feel I can offer, being an artist at this point, it is kind of a nebulous term, what does that [artist] mean? But one of the things that I’m fascinated by, is dealing with information or ideas that make the rest of our culture uncomfortable; and obviously the biodiversity crisis, climate change, all of these serious issues that, I mean, not to give myself too much credit, but I’ve been thinking about this stuff since the mid-80’s and making work about it. I saw it as the most important thing, I’ve always believed that, and now it’s become clear that most of the intelligent humans on planet Earth think that these are serious issues that have to be dealt with. So, I’m despairing in being right but I’m also gratified that I was there early and I’ve been thinking about it, terrified, about these ideas and issues for many many years. One of the things that’s just so bizarre — it reminds me of a conversation that I heard on NPR this morning, about Greek life on college campuses and a woman who wrote an article for The Atlantic, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” about Greek life in colleges. She is 53 years old and she said that as a college student going to school in the South — she  wasn’t specific about which school — she was very aware of how powerful and frightening these fraternities were and how much of a problem rape was then, 30 years ago. She found it inconceivable that it would be worse thirty years later. How is that possible? I thought, “That’s completely terrible”! I have two college age sons. One of them is a freshman and he’s attracted to fraternities on a certain level. I don’t think he quite understands the dark legacies that they have but that’s for him to figure out for himself. I was thinking, that is terrible and who would think that forty years after Earth Day that all of these crises would be far worse than we could ever comprehend; just when we felt that forty years ago — the first wave of eco-consciousness in America, that climate change would become a major issue, 15 years ago people would be aware of it, across the board. And there was still the lack of political will to do anything about it. I think that this is, if you can even imagine, an even greater travesty and tragedy than the huge and very serious tragedy of what’s going on in fraternities. There’s a lot of inertia when it comes to the inability to do anything collectively that might have some push back from very powerful forces.

BAM Right!

Is that sort of symptomatic of the plague of our times where it seems that you have this upper echelon …

AR It’s a historical issue. The history of Earth is, in terms of human history, littered with extinct cultures and societies. It’s nothing new.

BAM I think what I’m asking is, in your opinion, in some sense, is grassroots activism failing us because there’s so much wealth and power concentrated into so few individuals now?

AR Well, you could say that but social media is pretty powerful.

BAM Right.

AR I mean, I think that we live in a culture where there’s not a lot of political consciousness. There are so many factors; I can’t get into that.

BAM There’s a lot of apathy. 

AR There’s a lot of apathy and there’s a lot of inertia because people have a certain amount of economic resources and they’re very placated by the media. Not to point a finger at corporate conglomerates, which of course, one should, but who wants to think about this stuff when they can look at instagram?

BAM What are you currently working on?

AR I’m working on a five painting cycle about the history and the future of the Great Lakes region. The work references the geology, ecology and anthropology of the area. The project was instigated by The Grand Rapids Art Museum and will be exhibited in 2018 followed by a travelling exhibition of the work at multiple venues. 

Mount Rushmore, 2005, oil on wood, 40 x 32 in