Sunday, May 8, 2011

Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through May 8, 2011

I had not been looking forward to seeing this show particularly; looking at the posters advertising it, I got the impression that this was a "hit you over the head" type of exhibit. "Man is destroying the environment and we're all going to die!" seemed to be the theme. It's not that I don't believe that man is destroying the environment, and we're all going to die; I do think that's true, but I just didn't want to spend an entire lunch hour contemplating this.

Now that I've seen it, I wasn't exactly wrong in my impressions, but the show is more than what the advertisements would lead you to believe. The picture in this entry is not atypical of his work, but it's not the entirety of it, and I'm glad I went to see it.

The title of the show comes from a chapter in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, so the environmental note comes right away. Rockman's work is inspired by his boyhood trips to the Natural History Museum in New York, so I felt a bit of comradeship with him, as I too, have been inspired by my trips to museums. Many of his works depict the decay and death that lurks under the surface - what lies beneath the unturned rock. There is also a note of science fiction in his Biosphere series of paintings. As I've only just started reading science fiction, I can't comment very intelligently on that.

I was most struck by his painting of Guyana, based on a trip he took to that country in 1994. These painting depict only what is real; there are no imagined objects. Even so, there is plenty of strangeness in the works; one is astonished by the vibrancy of the real. I suppose we have brightly colored animals here in the United States, but as I tend to avoid prolonged exposure to nature, I don't often see them. Kapok Tree shows a forest at night, filled with frogs of many colors, rather than the insects that populate so many of his works.

Another work I liked very much was Ready to Rumble, a parody of the sanitization of urban decay, featuring a caped crusader cat. In his picture entitled Sea World, he shows a Sea World-like performance, with mutant sea creatures. I couldn't help but be reminded of the whale at Sea World, or some similar place, who killed one of the trainers.

The largest piece in the show is one that shows no decay or destruction at all - South is a panoramic (7 panels) view of Antarctica, and it is really stunning. The Big Weather series depicts the destruction of catastrophic weather, and was sadly apropos, given the tornadoes that have struck recently. Finally, The Reef reminded me of the crochet reef exhibit at the Natural History Museum, so I've yet another example of one show reminding me of another.

Verdict: The show ends today, so I can't tell you to run out and see it, but I hope you had a chance to visit while it was here. Really interesting and a far more varied body of work than I had expected.

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