We have all seen an artist’s rendering of a lonely polar bear on an ice floe. We’re invited to inhabit the polar bear’s perspective as his habitat melts around him. The purpose of that image is to get us to stop and think about how we are living, and understand that the choices we make affect the material reality of other creatures. This is graphic design at its most eco-political, and maybe at its most memorable, too.
The campaign also assumes sympathy with the polar bear. It requires us to project human emotions — loneliness, despair, bewilderment, outrage at the betrayal of the mammalian bond — onto a nonhuman creature. It may underestimate the number of people who see that bear not as a fellow traveler on a rock around the sun, but as an apex predator and a competitor for resources. Stranding a foe on an iceberg might, unconsciously, strike us as an example of man’s dominion over the animals, and a good tactical move.
With its rich soil, coastal cities and vulnerable wetlands, the Garden State is fertile territory for environmentalist art. “Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks” is just the latest New Jersey show motivated by the existential implications of the global environmental crisis. The exhibition, which will fill the ground floor galleries of the Bainbridge House in Princeton until Nov. 27, may not be the most effective or graceful intervention, but it’s surely the most sensational. Rockman’s dramatic paintings of boats going down in flames and wooden splinters are designed to inscribe a feeling of impending disaster on the minds of viewers.
As apocalyptic imagery often is, it is also awfully entertaining. Rockman would like to wake us up to the disastrous implications of the course we’re on. But he also plays on the well-established human desire to witness a catastrophe — a desire that may live somewhere deeper and more consequential than our will to save ourselves and our planet.
The paintings in “Shipwrecks” are busy beasts, and they often cram powerful demonstrations of Rockman’s proficiency in a range of styles — photorealism, abstract expressionism, watercolor, surreal landscape art — into a single frame. But at base, they’re versions of the bear on the ice floe. The artist has blown up the popular image to a wide scale in the same way a classical composer might build a symphony around a snatch of folk melody. On almost every canvas, Rockman gives us an animal, or several animals, cast adrift in the middle of a pitiless sea. A cat sits on a treasure chest, a bird perches on flotsam, a frog skulks away to the shallows, a dog rides a raft, a rat rides a hat, a bunny perches atop a goat atop a dead pig. The beasts tend to occupy the foreground; the background belongs to pitiless portrayals of seagoing vessels in distress.
Many of these lost ships are real ones, including the Brig Helen, the Luxborough Galley and the Lusitania, which is depicted twice. These are giant, floating metaphors for human folly and overreach, colonial exploitation and, in some cases, human conflict and slave trading. None of this registers on the faces of the bewildered animals. Although they can’t comprehend the reasons for their predicament, they are, like the polar bear, aware that they are in big trouble. Even creatures of the air, like the canary that has escaped from the Lusitania, won’t be able to fly long before they drop, exhausted, to the waves.
Rockman renders the animals with great precision, down to the bristling hair on the back of the monkey and the gleam in the teeth of the crocodile. He’s also particular about the lost human objects that provide temporary respite: the metal-ringed barrels, the corked glass bottles, the overturned still life that bobs away at the bottom of “Nuestra Señora de Atocha.” The shipwrecks themselves are, frequently, captured in impressionistic streaks of flame-red and smoke-gray paint. In “The Fate of the Rebel Flag,” the fire streaks from the center of the canvas to the upper right corner and casts an angry orange reflection on the surface of the water that swallows the bow of the ship. The vessel going down in “The Nile” hits the water at an impossible, and terrifying, angle, and looks more like a steam engine, or a loaded gun, than it does a riverboat.
Rockman intentionally blurs the line between sea, smoke and sky: In “Ablation,” a massive arc of ice and vapor hovers over a lone pilot in a canoe. Elsewhere, a band of survivor-animals rides a swell toward a near-liquid landscape, coming apart, like oil swirling down a drain. Is this truly “Hawaii,” or is it the angry sea and related forces of nature, rising up to assert itself by imposing its properties on the world we used to know?
It’s tempting to think that Rockman is giving us a glimpse of nonhuman cognition — showing us a chaotic swirl of forces, dancing on the edge of comprehensibility in order to mimic the powerful sense impressions of the mind of a beast. That might help explain the contrast between the sharp images of the animals and the dreamlike boats, waves and skies. Yet the implied position of the viewer suggests otherwise. We’re not invited to take a bird’s eye view, or share in the perspective of the dog below the surface of the ocean, and sometimes the water swells so high it threatens to engulf the entire scene. A few of his more experimental works are divided between day-lit tops and submarine bottoms, divided by a frothy, turbulent waterline. These are chillingly reminiscent of recent images of floodwaters lapping up against glass doors in storm-soaked Florida towns. We’re on the dry side of the aquarium wall — for now.
What matters is that we’re spectators, and rubberneckers at the site of a disaster. We’re invited to feel bad for these animals and, perhaps, encouraged to feel guilty for what we’ve done to their biome. But they’re going to drift off on their treasure chests and ice floes, and we’re going to keep our feet on terra firma.
Like many other visual storytellers, Rockman presents the apocalypse as an observable phenomenon. That’s nothing new in the history of art, but in 2022, it’s misleading. The ecological crisis isn’t like a shipwreck. It’s not a sudden, dramatic, near-psychedelic happenstance that tears the fabric of reality apart, and that we can apprehend if we stand on a rock at a sufficient distance. It’s more of a slow, steadily encroaching pain in the ass. We’re not watching it; we are it. It’s inextricably linked to the lives we lead.
That’s exactly what makes it so hard to see, and so tough for artists to capture. There is nothing eye-catching about a rising water table, salinized soil or the gradual, root-by-root destruction of a forest, so artists tend to paint their urgent calls to action in flamboyant colors and fill their canvases with cinematic calamities. But by representing climate change as a glorious, hypnotic, engrossing cataclysm, we run the risk of making it look really cool. We also reinforce the widely held misapprehension that if a hundred-foot wall of water doesn’t swamp us tomorrow, we’re in the clear.
In an attempt to stir us into action, the artist inadvertently appeals to the part of the psyche that really loves to stare at a car crash. If the climate crisis were truly committed on canvas, it wouldn’t be colorful, or vivid, or exciting. It would be dark, and gross, and slow, and lethal, and without a trace of heroism or grace apparent. Not a very nice picture, in other words. Nothing that would hang in the Louvre, or the Bainbridge House.
“Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks” is a terrific exhibition of the talents of a painter with many tools in his tackle box. It’s also quite an eyeful, and a treat for those who enjoy pictures of boats and nautical scenes. But as an intervention in the popular understanding of the deadly challenges we’re facing, it’s a spectacular backfire.
“Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks” is being presented by the Princeton University Art Museum at Art@Bainbridge, through Nov. 27. Visit artmuseum.princeton.edu/exhibitions.
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