5 Questions: Curator Joanna Marsh on Alexis Rockman

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s latest exhibition is Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow. the staff of Eye Level, American Art’s blog, sat down with the show’s curator, Joanna Marsh, to talk about the artist and his artworks.

Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman; The Pelican; 2006 Oil on wood Courtesy Elizabeth Schwartz, New York; © Alexis Rockman; Photo courtesy of the artist

Eye Level: Let’s begin with the intriguing title of the exhibition, A Fable for Tomorrow. Where does that come from?

Joanna Marsh: It’s borrowed from the opening chapter of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, one of the most well-known publications about environmental reform. The book is an exposé about the hazards of chemical pesticides like DDT. In the first chapter, titled “A Fable for Tomorrow,” Carson describes a fictional town that falls victim to the effects of these toxins. Once lush with growth and wildlife, the bucolic landscape begins to deteriorate. The plants die and the birds stop singing. In creating a fictional narrative, Carson heightens the drama of her scientific findings in order to raise awareness about the potential dangers of DDT. This strategy of merging fact and fiction struck me as a perfect parallel to what Alexis Rockman does in his own work: taking something that is based on scientific research and turning it into a fantasy.

EL: I’m reminded of his image Golf Course where things seem okay, depending on where you put your foot. It’s just under the surface that things begin to go terribly wrong. Is there one particular painting that speaks to you?

JM: It’s hard to pick a favorite, there are so many in the exhibition that are beautifully painted. I love Golf Course because it’s both playful and deeply serious which is true of many works in the exhibition. Despite the dire predictions that Rockman is playing out, there is always an element of humor, albeit a very dark humor. In Golf Course Rockman reminds us that ecological decay lurks just below the surface of our most controlled environments. The painting is a commentary on we, as a society, trying to manicure over the ugliness we create. This is a recurring theme in the exhibition.

EL: He seems to have the ability to show us our past, present, as well as our possible future.

JM: There is a kind of prophetic quality to many of his paintings, In his catalogue essay, eminent scientist Thomas Lovejoy speaks of Rockman as a kind of Cassandra, predicting the future and in many cases that future is already here. This is not just a fable for tomorrow, it’s present already. For Rockman, it’s about processing that personally and about raising a greater awareness of it through his art.

EL: How do Rockman’s works connect to the canon at American Art?

JM: Rockman’s work is influenced by a wide range of American artists, in particular Hudson River School painters such as Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt. For instance, his painting South clearly references Church’s painting The Icebergs, a painting of the North Pole originally titled The North. In addition to 19th century landscape painters Rockman is also indebted to American Regionalist painters like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and Alexandre Hogue, all of whom are represented in the Smithsonian American Art collection.

EL: What should viewers look for in an exhibition that covers more than two decades of an artist’s work?

JM: Well, for me one of the most interesting aspects of any mid-career survey is seeing how an artist’s work has evolved over several decades, both in terms of subject matter and painting style. This exhibition offers the opportunity to witness the transformation of Rockman’s work over a period of 25 years, from his tightly rendered early paintings like Evolution, to his more loosely painted “Half-life” series. These later pieces resemble Color Field paintings by Morris Louis with large, abstract areas of poured paint. The sense of motion and fluidity is dramatically different from the precisionist quality of Rockman’s early work, and it’s exciting to see that transition up close. That’s just one of the things that I hope viewers will take away from the exhibition, along with a new appreciation for Alexis Rockman’s work!

EL: It should be a fascinating exhibition. Thank you, Joanna Marsh.

Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until May 8, 2011.

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