Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow

November 19, 2010 — May 7, 2011

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, NW)

Alexis Rockman (b. 1962) has been depicting the natural world with virtuosity and wit for more than two decades. He was one of the first contemporary artists to build his career around exploring environmental issues, from evolutionary biology and genetic engineering to deforestation and climate change. Rockman has garnered attention for embracing these issues, as well as for the epic quality of his projects, including several monumentally scaled canvases. His work expresses deep concerns about the world’s fragile ecosystems and the tension between nature and culture, which are communicated through vivid, even apocalyptic, imagery. Rockman achieves his vision through a synthesis of fantasy and empirical fact, using sources as varied as natural history, botanical illustrations, museum dioramas, science fiction films, realist art traditions dating back to the Renaissance, and firsthand field study.

Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow is the first major survey of the artist's work and features 47 paintings and works on paper from private and public collections. The title of the exhibition is taken from the opening chapter of Rachel Carson's influential 1962 book Silent Spring. In it, Carson combines two seemingly incompatible literary genres—mythic narrative and factual reportage. Rockman approaches his paintings with a similar intent.

The exhibition traces Rockman's artistic development from the mid-1980s to the present. Highlights include Evolution (1992), his first mural-sized painting, and Manifest Destiny (2003-2004), an ambitious large-scale work commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The exhibition is organized by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.

The accompanying book, co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and London-based D Giles Limited, is written by Joanna Marsh with contributions from Thomas Lovejoy, biodiversity chair at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment in Washington, D.C.; Kevin J. Avery, senior research scholar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and a foreword by Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Marsh’s essay weaves the themes of Rockman’s career and the history of America’s environmental movement into a cohesive narrative. Avery considers Rockman’s art historical references to 19th-century painting, while Lovejoy offers insights in the marriage of art and science in Rockman’s work from the perspective of an expert on biodiversity and climate change. The book is for sale ($49.95/$35 softcover) through the museum's website and store, and at bookstores nationwide.

Alexis Rockman, The Pelican

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