DT Still, almost all of your paintings clearly are saying “take a look at this,” whether it’s genetic modification, as in your painting The Farm , or global warming, as in Manifest Destiny. So, by spotlighting those issues, your paintings do, in a sense, serve the cause of alerting the public.
AR Right, and I accept that to a certain extent, but it also gets tiresome. I care about the issues, obviously, but I have mixed feelings about being viewed exclusively that way. When I first started out, to have something like environmentalism in mind as a painter was considered so wrong that I felt it was radical. I was very aware that Clement Greenberg would not approve, and lots of people would be shaking their heads, saying, “you can’t do that.” But that was exciting to me.
DT It seems very lucky to me that you were able to establish a platform so early in your career that has served you for so long.
AR It’s lucky, but it also has taken discipline. As an artist, to know what you want is 90 percent of the psychological battle. But I didn’t just arrive at it. It was a struggle. I had to come around to it. And in order to take myself seriously, I had to reject my childhood at first, and then I had to go back and embrace it. That’s when I think my work really started, when I embraced my own history.
DT Looking back at New York in the 1980s, there were all kinds of things happening in art that were not even close to what you were doing as a figurative painter. You were not part of Neo-Expressionism, or Neo-Geo, or the East Village scene. I’m wondering how you situated yourself amid everything that was going on.
AR I really wanted to be on my own. I was happy to be one of the very few painters at my gallery, Jay Gorney, when he first opened in 1985. He was interested in post-conceptual work, very smart, and very eclectic, which I really liked. And I considered myself to be a conceptual painter. But I also wanted to be a real painter. I looked to people like Polke, Taaffe, Bleckner and even Kiefer for the idea of making highly subjective history. I looked at their works carefully to have a sense of how to make something feel credible. I thought that there was a way to have it both ways.
Then I met Mark Dion, who I had heard about. We’d been at the School of the Visual Arts at the same time, but we met later, in ’88, I think, and I was surprised that there was another artist who was interested in many of the same things, like ecology, biology and conservation. He came to it from a very different place, and even though our work looked quite different, it was nice to not be completely alone. And it was great that what he was doing wasn’t painting. We’d go on trips and expeditions. He introduced me to the idea that you could actually travel somewhere and do something in the tradition of the 19th- or early 20th-century adventurer/researcher, and that was exciting, because it was a way to get out of the studio.
DT Can you tell me about some of the places you visited with Dion, and some of the work you did during those trips?
AR We went to Belize in 1990, but the biggest trip was in ’94, when we went camping for six weeks along the Essequibo River system in Guyana. That was where Charles Darwin and [American naturalist, explorer and author] William Beebe [1877-1962] had been—two people from the worlds of ecology and biology whom Mark and I both admired tremendously. The idea for me was to go to a place and create work based solely on empiricism—on what I could see with my own eyes. That’s where I started making the “Field Drawings,” which were done from observation. I had run out of materials, and Mark had pulled some mud from the riverbank. We just were kidding around and started making drawings with it. So many of my best ideas come from joking around.
DT I’m curious about who and what else has inspired you.
AR In the mid-’80s, I was looking at people like Kenny Scharf, and that would be inspiring because his work was so crazy, and he was so unabashedly enthusiastic about what he was into. And I think there’s a transgressive, childlike element that is really what some parts of the 20th century were all about. On a certain level, I felt encouraged by that to do things with my work, like showing a pig fucking a duck. One side of it, though, is very serious, because it’s about the frustration of artificial selection.
DT That’s an interesting example, because many images in your work are horrific to me, but then there’s a suggestion of humor.
AR Oh, there’s a lot of humor. At least I hope there is. I mean, I was laughing so hard. For me, humor is a way to give yourself permission to say things that you wouldn’t say if you were being serious. You would censor yourself.
DT Tell me more about the “Field Drawings,” which depict isolated motifs—animals, insects, plants—on stark white grounds with an abbreviated vocabulary of marks. They’re very beautiful.
AR Yeah, they’re almost like calligraphy, like pictograms or fossils. When I started them in the mid-1990s, I was taking a cue from the Earth artists, in terms of using materials that are about the specificity of place. So, instead of paint, the “Field Drawings” are made from things like wombat poop, pulverized fossils and garbage juice. And I’m combining that with a type of pictorialism that feels uniquely American, which is the idea of the field guide.
DT I’m intrigued by these shifts in your process, from the “Field Drawings” to a mural-size visionary painting like Manifest Destiny to your “Weather Drawings,” which feel quite spontaneous in their depictions of tornadoes, toxic emissions and landslides.
AR A painting like Manifest Destiny was a real challenge because there was so much architecture, and it was so much about articulating intellectual space. Making that was very much a forward-looking, goal-oriented process. The “Weather Drawings” are a direct response to the tedium of that process—the desire to make something very quickly and very directly. I wanted alchemy.
DT Manifest Destiny is very clearly a history painting in that it depicts an epic historical event, albeit an imagined one, which is the destruction of Brooklyn as a result of global warming. You’ve talked before about the idea of official and unofficial versions of history. Can you elaborate on that?
AR It’s not an original idea, but history is written by the winners. History is manipulated by those who have the power. It’s like the Public Enemy song—to quote Chuck D, “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” That’s why I try to make history paintings that are about failure and disappointment.
DT What is history painting today? How do you think it functions now?
AR My thinking about history painting is that you can paint something that’s in the past or something that’s in the future. I just finished one called Mesopotamia for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a commission through the Art in Embassies Program. It’s a painting of what used to exist in and around the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, the ecosystem that was dependent on the water, which is all gone now. So, you see a Caspian tiger, for example. Saddam had drained the whole ecosystem before America put a nail in the coffin. Now, the whole area is just dead.
DT I’m wondering what it means to you to be placing all of this in the form of a painting versus, say, a film or video.
AR I think that one of the great privileges of being a painter is that it’s so intimate. It’s so visceral. I think about Dutch still-life painting and the idea of illusionistic space, of lovingly describing surface. It’s about intimacy, and it’s about painting something that’s transient—a memento mori. So, much of my thinking about these paintings has to do with something that will be lost. That’s why certain elements in my paintings, like the loving description of feathers or rat hairs, feel so wrong in the shadow of modernism, because modernism is really about denying biology.
DT You use photographs as sources for your paintings, but in many cases you’re painting something that doesn’t truly exist. For example, The Farm includes a cow shaped like a box and tomatoes shaped like slices of pie.
AR I’m interested in that tension between what’s possible and what’s not possible. Sometimes you have to give yourself a basis of credibility in one area in order to suspend disbelief in another area. And I like the idea of painting the un-photographable, painting time travel. That’s why something like science-fiction illustration is interesting to me. It’s about looking for ways that painting can matter.
DT One of the things that really interests me about your paintings is that they don’t function solely in the esoteric social space of the art world.
AR Right, but who knows whether or not that’s going to seem interesting in 50 years, or if that’s going to make any sense. But from my perspective, those seemingly irreconcilable impulses are what create my body of work. If my paintings were all so tasteful and safe and predictable then they wouldn’t be challenging. And I was brought up in a context where you have to challenge. You have to be skeptical. On the other hand, many of my heroes have been relegated to the dustbin of history, and I don’t know what that means.
“Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow” is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum,Washington, D.C. [Nov. 19, 2010-May 8, 2011], and will travel to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio [Sept. 24, 2011-Jan. 1, 2012].
DAN TRANBERG is an artist and critic who teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art.