A strange other world recently emerged in the third floor galleries at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It's a vivid, surreal land where cities are swamped by floods, man-size mosquitoes taunt ecotourists in the night, cows and pigs and chickens are re-engineered to look more ani-meal than animal, and microorganisms grow huge and threatening.
This is our future as seen by New York artist Alexis Rockman in a show entitled "A Fable For Tomorrow," which opened November 19. The title is borrowed from the prologue of environmentalist Rachel Carson's epic 1962 book, Silent Spring. There, Carson chillingly foretold of the dangers the world faced as it grew increasingly dependent upon chemical pesticides. Carson's book launched the environmental movement and is credited with helping to usher in the ban on DDT.
As did Carson's work, Rockman's apocalyptic fable emerges from the artist's admirable reserve of research and scholarship. In this show, artist and scientist are one; and the museum's mid-career retrospective of the 48-year-old painter is also a provocative commentary on biodiversity, genetic engineering and global climate change. Rockman frequently consults with scientists and researchers before he begins his work. The artist has contributed to several publications and has taught at both Columbia and Harvard Universities.
Curator Joanna Marsh says the interdisciplinary approach makes Rockman a "master of merging fact and fiction." The show, she says, is a perfect example of how the Smithsonian Institution itself has long formed a tradition of embracing the "intersection and the interplay of art and science."
And in fact one of Rockman's friends and mentors is Thomas Lovejoy, who served as the Smithsonian's assistant secretary from 1987 to 1994 and was the scientist who coined the term, "biological diversity." In our December issue, Lovejoy says Rockman's paintings depict "a surrealism that is seriously anchored in reality." (Learn more about Rockman in Cathleen McGuigan's article "Picturing Tomorrow.")
"I'm picking through the debris," said Rockman at a recent press preview. His 2006 work, Hollywood at Night (above) reduces the famous California hillside to a lost civilization where the city of Los Angeles is barely distinguishable in the distance, its lights and power extinguished. All that is left to sparkle are the moon and the fireflies.
But all is not lost and dreary in this fabled world, the final gallery explodes with the seven-panel, 2007 painting entitled, South. A glorious floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall panorama depicts in chill blues and grays the place where immense glacier meets water—a sight the artist took in aboard a cruise ship on an expedition he took to the Antarctic Peninsula. The work, housed in a dead-end cave of a gallery, lends a sense of cautious hopefulness to the dreary depictions on the walls of the other galleries. But in order to leave the exhibition, visitors must first retrace their steps once again back through Rockman's disquieting Tale of Tomorrow.