Artist Feature – Alexis Rockman (Sydney Goldman ’21)

Alexis Rockman’s painting Aviary is a warning, an ominous admonition. Yet the painting gives a deceptively lighthearted first impression. We see an impressively sturdy tree serving as a home to a myriad of bird species, a charming scene set against a stunning, sunset red backdrop. With perches, feeders, and water sources seemingly built into the tree, we get the feeling that the tree is the perfect home for birds from all corners of the globes. But this pleasant scene is harshly disrupted upon further inspection. It seems that the tree is actually constructed from metal, that the birds are odd amalgams of familiar species, that the brilliant red of the sunset simply cannot be natural. Upon second glance, then, Aviary’s charming nature has devolved into the disturbing.

Alexis Rockman, American, born 1962, Aviary, 1992. Oil on wood . Private Collection. © 2018 Alexis Rockman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Indeed, Alexis Rockman painted Aviary with this very intent. He wanted to express his fear over the future of human evolution and created Aviary as a means to do so. Aviary is currently on view in the exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment at the Princeton University Art Museum until January 6, 2019. In a public conversation with Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment co-curator Alan C. Braddock, Rockman explained the tree is coated in metal as a form of armor, implying that nature has had to protect itself from vindictive outside forces, again man-made. He then suggested that the particular hue of the sunset suggests the aftermath of some man-made, apocalyptic event.

Alexis Rockman is a native New Yorker and a prolific painter. Among other noteworthy achievements, Rockman has had a solo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, has had a touring collection of his works organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and has collaborated with Ang Lee to make the popular movie Life of Pi. But above all, Rockman is fascinated by nature and by ecology, which translates into a dedication for conservation. Rockman absolutely explores this dedication through his art. In an interview the New York Times, Rockman maintained that he used art to “cope” with “what I was witnessing and to support a campaign for conservation.” By painting dystopian scenes of human greed and technological advancement gone awry, he hopes to expose how our reckless ambitions of constant advancement compromise the livelihoods of other species and, ultimately, of our planet. Although he has become a bit cynical over humankind’s willingness to enact necessary change (he has stated that “the engine of capitalism is too powerful”), his art still serves as an important tool for catalyzing an awareness of the harmful, yet inevitable effects of our actions.

Rockman in his NYC studio with his dog, Padme
Photo courtesy of the New York Times

This motive comes through not just in Aviary, but in all of Rockman’s pieces. For instance, consider The Farm, which Rockman also elected to highlight in his conversation with Braddock. Rockman articulated that this painting was the product of extensive research and interviews concerning agriculture. He wanted to demonstrate the realities of our growing agricultural expertise, especially when it comes to artificial selection for animals. The message is subtle but strong; as one’s eyes travel from left to right, one can see that the cow, pig, and rooster are becoming increasingly genetically modified, turning into their “ideal” form in terms of usefulness to humankind, yet also appearing increasingly outrageous. As with all his works, Rockman’s The Farm forces viewers to wrestle with difficult questions regarding the ethics of technological progress.

The Farm
Photo courtesy of Artspace

In early October, the UN released a dire report: we will experience unusually severe effects of climate change in our lifetimes if we do not take immediate and “unprecedented” action within the next decade. Given this, Rockman’s work is especially poignant and threatening, as it may serve as a preview to our not-so-distant future. In a world where nobody seems quite willing to independently confront the reality of imminent crisis, maybe visual reminders of this reality, like those painted by Rockman, can be vehicles for change.