BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Alexis Rockman

BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

Until now, Alexis Rockman has made paintings that reflect on the systems of thought and representation that order our understandings - and misunderstandings - of 'nature'. His fictions of biodiversity - cross-species copulations, mutants and alternate food chains - have served as enticements to thinking across or between systems and disciplines, even such large distinctions as art and science. Rockman has drawn on a range of sources, mostly either historical or futuristic: Dutch still-life painting; 'trees of life' from Victorian evolutionary theory; grandiose 19th-century American landscapes (Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church); botanical and zoological illustrations; documentation of animal experimentation; and science-fiction movies (Soylent Green, Silent Running, Alien, Naked Lunch). The series of paintings 'Concrete Jungle' depicted pest and feral species in the urban environments which, however unwillingly or unwittingly, humans provide and share with them. Here Rockman's movement between historical idealisations of nature and apocalyptic futures provided a kind of backdrop for a curious temporal sense. Those images, in which humans are represented only by what they have left behind, suspend the environment of the present in some void between an imagined past of first-growth forests and passenger-pigeons, and a ruined and abandoned planet of the future.

Rockman has already encountered the difficulty of thinking about our relations to environmental degradation in the present when nature, whether wild or preserved, is assumed to be elsewhere, both geographically and temporally. In this exhibition, 'Dioramas', he focused more explicitly on this problem. This involved a pointed move away from painting: each of the nine new works in the exhibition combines paint with collage elements, including photographs, readymade and found objects (dead animals, etc.), each encased in a block of transparent Envirotex synthetic resin between three and a quarter and five inches thick. Rockman's subject matter remains broadly the same: Human Ancestors (all works 1997) revisits the tree of life, with hominid development ending in a fat, shirtless sports fan wearing Nike sneakers and with a hand down his pants, leaving a more physically impressive mutant satyr far behind. But now there is more emphasis on the mundanity of the contemporary interpenetration of human and natural activity.

The Rec-Room presents a section through the wood veneer of a wall, on which hangs a kitsch, anthropomorphic painting of dogs playing cards, to expose pink fibreglass insulation, electrical wiring, a cache of money (nesting material?) and a squirrel mounting a rat, with a suburban clocktower in the background. Ypsilanti, Michigan, the work most reminiscent of Modernist collage, is an all-over swirl of trash: junk food, cigarette and fish-hook packages, a pesticide cartridge, scraps of junk mail, with puddles of metallic pigment and some small, dried-up blue frog bodies. Perhaps the central work in the exhibition, an imposing diptych entitled The Ecotourist, reflectively revisits Rockman's huge painting Evolution of 1992. That work presented an imaginary, impossible evolution - both encyclopaedic and failed - which embraced the 'facehugger' from Alien and culminated in a stunted, hermaphroditic hominid suggesting a cross between a 50s sci-fi alien and the Elephant Man). In The Ecotourist however, the horizontal axis of the work is dominated by a self-portrait relief of the artist in the eponymous role of that most contemporary representative of a global growth industry. He is equipped, the key tells us, with a Guide to the Birds of Colombia, but he is undone by the rainforest. Among the various plants and creatures assailing his body, a coatimundi makes off with his penis, and to one side, a magnified section shows carrion beetles, bluebottle flies and maggots at work on his corpse while butterflies frolic above in the aqueous tropical atmosphere. This is a sardonic image of the interpenetration of human and natural, as the being at the top of the food chain rejoins it on the forest floor.

The move to collage would seem to guarantee the contemporaneity of Rockman's images, for collage is a classic Modernist strategy for bringing the actual into art, for tying art to its moment. But Rockman deploys it ironically. It's not only that Modernism may be exhausted, but that the Envirotex casings, like the dioramas in natural history museums, freeze these moments (or embalm them). So if Rockman's 'Dioramas' mark a material break with his previous work, the freezing of the present allows him to address the question that dogs any attempt to represent contemporary environmental conditions: is it always already too late?