The natural world - real and imagined

"Evolution," a 24-foot-wide portrait of biodiversity, can be seen in "Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
"Evolution," a 24-foot-wide portrait of biodiversity, can be seen in "Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (From)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, November 26, 2010

Painter Alexis Rockman says he thinks of his art as a "listing" of things he cares about. Judging by the Smithsonian American Art Museum's visually impressive and conceptually dense "Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow," it's a long list.

While leading a tour of his mid-career retrospective - the 48-year-old artist's first - Rockman enumerated a few of the things he loves: frogs, science fiction, natural history dioramas, Hudson River School landscape painting, German naturalist and illustrator Ernst Haekel, the Central Park Zoo, icebergs.

You'll see evidence of all of those loves on the walls.

And that's not even counting what Rockman calls the 281 "protagonists" in "Evolution," a 24-foot-wide panorama that you might call an imagined portrait of global biodiversity, past and present. Like a centerfold out of some demented Time-Life Books science text, it's a meticulously rendered amalgam of plants and animals both real and unreal. In the center of its swampy tableau, you'll see an extinct brontotherium (a rhino-like creature with what looks like a wooden coat hanger growing out of its nose). To the right sits a wolpertinger, a mythological beast of German origin that is made up of parts of various real ones (think jackalope, only more bizarre). Elsewhere, a ring-tailed lemur appears to be happily mating with a hyacinth macaw.

There's a numbered key on the wall, listing all 214 specimens. Rockman's larger figure of 281 apparently accounts for hybrids. The wolpertinger, for instance, sports a bird's bill, wings and flippers, as well as fur and antlers.

Rockman's main interest, in a nutshell, is the natural environment. Beetles and other bugs swarm over a rotting animal carcass in "Object of Desire." An ant colony tears apart a blue butterfly in "The Dynamics of Power." But even more than that "Wild Kingdom," circle-of-life stuff, the artist is also interested in the delicate pas de deux between man and Mother Nature. Not just what she does to us - check out the airplane-size mosquitoes about to attack a sleeping camper in "The Hammock" - but what we're doing to her.

Images of environmental degradation abound.

"Airport" features broken body parts of an actual laughing gull, suspended in polymer resin, like a fossil in amber, in front of the image of a jet engine. Other pictures depict the impact of pollution, aquatic theme parks, climate change, biotechnology and genetic engineering on wildlife. In "Farm," it's hard to tell what's real from what isn't. That mouse growing a human ear-shaped piece of cartilage on its back? Very, very real. That chicken with no feathers and six wings? The part about the extra wings is made up. ("For now," notes Rockman, wryly.) The featherlessness? Israeli scientists have, in fact, developed a featherless bird, a boon to poultry processors.

Rockman himself is a great collaborator, soliciting input from scientists to inform much of his images. He wants his pictures to be plausible, in other words, if at times impossible. Some pictures - such as the pig and the goose copulating in "The Trough" - are works of pure, if nightmarish, fiction.

The thread of a cautionary tale runs throughout "A Fable for Tomorrow." The title comes from the first chapter of Rachel Carson's seminal environmental book "Silent Spring."

There's something a bit disingenuous when Rockman says he isn't trying to scold anyone with his art, despite what at times are bleak, post-apocalyptic images. "Warnings," he maintains, "are for cigarette packs." Still, the artist admits to wanting to send some of us back to school with his pictures.

They are, he hopes, fun but also educational. The lesson, in two words, is what Rockman calls his motto: Be conscious. ALEXIS ROCKMAN: A FABLE FOR TOMORROW Through May 8 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: Free.

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