Friday, March 11, 2011


Alexis Rockman's nightmarish works are lining up the walls at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. " A Fable for Tomorrow" includes 47 paintings representing 25 years of the prolific artist's career. Art? Science? Fiction?

The works are talking about genetic mutations, extinction of the human specie, cross-species copulation, disasters, evolution. Apocalyptic, the message is stark, delivered sometimes with bright or dark colors. The legacy of a culture (ours) is destroyed, annihilated. The paintings describe a strange fauna and flora, peaceful, in harmony, a world populated by ferns, primitive insects or strange mammals, where mankind has no place. They also suggest sounds, like buzzing, chewing, water splashes, animals copulating... Overall, it is a quiet world.

Inspired by the dioramas he gazed at during his childhood's visits to the American Museum of Natural History, by science-fiction movies, or by the painters from the Hudson River school, Bosh, Grunewald, scientists like Von Humboldt, the resulting works are a detailed realism, almost compulsive. Like a scientist, the artist is describing creatures of the future, not created or imagined but carefully researched, at least this is the impression. For example, Evolution, 1992, is a meticulous repertory of 214 plants and animal species. A key is available for the viewer next to the work, like you would find at a museum but in several centuries.

The artist mingles with scientists and went on expeditions in Antarctica and produced "South", 2008, which I thought, is a mediocre composition made of seven panels. He also visited Guyana and brought back illustrations of plants and insects. His most recent period embraces expressionism with his "Big Weather" series depicting tornadoes and severe weather.

The exhibition is timely as the world is watching the events unfold in Japan. The breadth of the message is limited, and I think that it is due to the technique of the artist who has not built his own style to deliver it. He is making references to so many artists from different backgrounds and centuries and the encyclopedic knowledge of the artist stays at one level, weakening the piece of art. Upon leaving the museum, I wondered if I just visited an exhibition sponsored by National Geographic.

photographs by the author

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