Rockman’s Psychedelic Vision of Natural History

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"Pioneers" by Alexis Rockman.

Alexis Rockman has described his visual depictions of the planet as “natural history psychedelia,” and that is precisely how Andrea Grover experiences them.

There are cautionary tales and apocalyptic scenes, a mash-up of the natural world and man’s impact. Climate change, invasive species, urban sprawl and mass agriculture are on display, as seen through animals running amok, interspecies breeding, sea level rise, ship and plane wrecks, artificial selection and mutation — animals and objects in places, and positions, they shouldn’t be, but someday could.

The fantastical imagery, at its core, is frightening — enough to snap viewers out of their stupors, Grover said, “and hopefully mobilize us to stop the exploitation of the planet.”

“Alexis’s rare ability to combine a vast knowledge of natural history with eco-activism and exceptional painting skills is what draws me to his work,” she said. “My own curatorial research over the last 10 to 15 years has focused on artists working in science, technology and engineering, and how artist-initiated scientific research can expand knowledge in ways yet unimagined. This is why we are in conversation.”

On Saturday, Grover — who is the executive director of Guild Hall in East Hampton — will sit down with Rockman as part of the Art/History/Amagansett series, and speak on the artist’s future landscapes informed by looming threats to the environment in a program called “Future Shock.”

The title not only refers to the circa-1970 book by Alvin and Heidi Toffler — which describes a high-paced, super-industrial society that surpasses and overwhelms human perception — but an eponymous international exhibition in New Mexico that featured two of Rockman’s large-scale paintings, “Bronx Zoo” and “Battle Royale,” as well as 76 of his “Field Drawings,” not unlike those he created three years ago on the East End, which were on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

“They have nothing to do with each other,” Rockman said of his paintings and field drawings. “I mean, they are simultaneous strands of my interest, but they are not related other than I made them. They’re very much a way for me to put on another hat. They’re informed by their fluidity and evocativeness, hopefully, because I hope the paintings are evocative. As much as they might be epic and very involved, there’s a lot of fluid dynamics and alchemy in the paintings, so the material sort of takes over for itself.”

Though the self-described shut-in spends most of his time brooding in his Manhattan studio, Rockman relies on the outdoors as his source of inspiration — from Antarctica and Tasmania to Madagascar and even the Hamptons.

“The thing about Long Island, which is not unlike many other places on earth, is that all these houses are built on, basically, a glorified sandbar, and it was pushed up by the glacier,” he said. “These incredibly high-end pieces of real estate are very vulnerable to what’s headed our way. That might be the shock — in ‘Future Shock’ — that’s implied.”

Last Tuesday afternoon, the artist was fighting a case of burnout — coming off a huge push this past spring with his two projects “Envisioning: Wallace’s Line” and “The Great Lakes Cycle” — while researching invasive species in French Polynesia for his next effort.

What shape it will eventually take, Rockman couldn’t say.

“Virtually any place on earth has something interesting,” he said. “It could be Paris — there’s a fascinating history of their sewer system; I’m pretty sure there are things that live in there — to tiny islands in the South Pacific. Every place is fascinating and I can find something of interest to me, and my work, anywhere. We might even leave the planet.”

 

Art/History/Amagansett continues with “Future Shock,” a conversation between artist Alexis Rockman and Guild Hall executive director Andrea Grover on Saturday, September 29, at 6 p.m. at the Amagansett Library, located at 215 Main Street in Amagansett. Admission is free, but reservations are required. For more information, call (631) 267-3810 or visit amaglibrary.org.

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