CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW Blow Flies by Alexis Rockman. Courtesy Nyehaus
Alexis Rockman’s latest exhibit Half-life, up at New York City’s Nyehaus gallery through April 18, is a perverse kind of escape hatch for dark times. Lose yourself here for an afternoon and you’ll experience a happy, hallucinatory netherworld where the natural and the nonhuman persevere despite or perhaps because of the missteps of humanity. Of course, any kind of optimistic takeaway is probably accidental. Rockman is best known for his 2004 mural at the Brooklyn Museum, Manifest Destiny, which painstakingly depicts how global warming will capsize Manhattan and destroy civilization within 300 years. Rockman is eternally cynical about humanity; he sees his role as an artist as providing dark but beautiful reminders that we’re bound by a biological contract. Break the laws of nature, and we suffer, a Rockman painting says. As he told us in a 2004 Salon with Neil deGrasse Tyson: “I guess I’m interested in bad news. That’s my role, because no one else was willing to do it.”
But Half-Life seems more ambiguously apocalyptic than Rockman’s previous work. The paintings, all gargantuan, wall-eating expanses, riff on the work of Morris Louis, a famous abstract expressionist whose canvases of rainbows and rectangles of color were, to many, the apotheosis of the free-thinking spirit of the West during the Cold War. Over Louis’s rainbows and rectangles, Rockman has laid his trademark, hyper-detailed biological forms — Adelie penguins, mosquitoes, mutant Gerber daisies, ants, rabbits. The two layers — the often-distorted natural world against wild streaks of color — suggest the hope of modern society and its ultimate failings. But neither side of the relationship seems to dominate. Abstract painting glorified “modernism, technology, and capitalism,” Rockman explains, but “obviously there’s a toxic, dark side to that.”
In Gerbera Daisies, a rabbit and a flower draped in streams of yellow and hunter green is first ingested as transcendentally sunny, but a closer look at the canvas reveals that the bunny has three ears and the flower is not quite right. “In my mind, that had to do with mutation and pesticides,” says Rockman. “The idea of the perfect lawn.” Although the painting seems fundamentally critical of biotechnology, Rockman says that he believes that we’re biologically driven to strive for the perfect lawn because it reminds us of the savannahs we evolved on. Half-life suggests that we should embrace our good intentions while staring their mutant byproducts square in the face.
Design pioneer, neo-futurist, and novelist Bruce Sterling reflects on Half-life’s tug-of-war between human hope and failure in The Sleep of Reason, an essay the gallery commissioned to accompany the exhibit. In it, Sterling portrays Rockman as an alligator at a watering hole. “Though he is known for the searing clarity of his paintings, there are things below the waterline that he does not paint,” Sterling writes. “He decided, as an act of deliberate will, to maintain his amphibious ambiguity. An ambiguity about the boundary of man and animal. An ambiguity about the borders of nature and artifice. Of art, of science.”
Rockman started this series two years ago, before the current economic crisis. So while the work has an uncanny timeliness to it, it’s almost as if he had the foresight to know this moment would not call for another Manifest Destiny — or any other detailed illustration of our failings. Half-life has just enough of the good stuff, enough reminders of the beauty and hope of humanity to hang a life raft on.
Originally published April 2, 2009