Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Seeds of the Future

Artist Alexis Rockman paints the precarious balance between man and nature


New York-based artist Alexis Rockman, who received a BFA from New York's School of Visual Arts, has been exhibiting his work since the mid-80s and has a resume as long as a strand of DNA. He's exhibited in Austria, Germany, Jerusalem and London; the Rose Museum at Brandeis University in Massachusetts; The Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash.; several galleries in New York, including Leo Koenig Inc., the Hudson River Museum, and the Visual Art Gallery at the School of Visual Arts; and in various galleries across the country. Rockman has also taught at Columbia and Harvard and is currently working on a retrospective for the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Rockman will lecture at Boise State on Thursday, April 30. His visit is a joint venture between the Boise State College of Arts and Sciences, the Art Department, the Visual Arts Center, Boise Art Museum and the Boise City Department of Arts and History as part of an outreach program.

A longtime scholar of natural history, Rockman spent part of his childhood in the halls of the American Museum of Natural History, where his mother worked for Margaret Mead, and he has worked closely with scientists such as Peter Ward and the late Stephen J. Gould. Rockman's work reflects visions of the future: cities under water, genetically modified farm animals, a sky of red or our nation's capitol suffocating under a blanket of weeds. The images are aesthetically intriguing and often startling. Rockman's work has been described as showing "the precarious balance of man and nature" and the scales often seem to tip toward man. But not necessarily in a good way.

From his watercolor of a rabbit/fowl/bug hybrid (Still Life, 1991), to the bright mutations in The Farm, to the turquoise oils of Antarctic ice ("South" 2008) to a realistic but gruesome depiction of the Montauk Monster (a creature found washed ashore near Montauk, New York), which is part of "Half-Life" an exhibit that just closed at New York's Nyehaus, Rockman's paintings suggest a fragility and a power in the world around us. To see them in tiny squares when they pop up on Google Images is arresting; to see them in person must be nearly overwhelming.

"It's a visceral experience," Rockman said. "The images obviously matter, but seeing the work is the deal. That's a lot to ask in this culture, you know. Most people don't have the time or the money to travel to a place to see work, if you're dealing with the normal populace ... It's one of the limitations of the world and I can accept that."

What may no longer be acceptable, however, is humanity's effect—global warming in particular—on the environment. A post-apocalyptic world in which man no longer has a place might not be science-fiction fantasy. Rockman paints pictures of a grim future we may very well be moving closer to every day.

In his 2004 8-foot by 24-foot mural Manifest Destiny, Rockman pictures Brooklyn, circa 3000. Global warming has turned the teeming city into a kind of Atlantis with familiar architectural elements of the city submerged and a host of water-dwelling flora and fauna.

"I make paintings about how we perceive ourselves in relationship to the rest of the planet, both culturally and scientifically," Rockman said.

Rockman's 2000 painting The Farm, which was part of a group exhibition entitled "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," is a primary-color-filled image of a dark possible future. A crop of perfect little green soy plants in perfect little rows reaching to the horizon works as a backdrop for food sources all the way from a cellular level to a creepy human-influenced conclusion. At the left of the frame, cells in stages of mitosis float above a strand of human DNA and an ancient-looking cow and pig. On a fence post in the foreground stands a healthy, full-feathered rooster. On the ground below, a sun-yellow blossom reaches toward the sun as a small mouse looks set to forage for scraps. Traveling right, square tomatoes, a pig with its major—and inedible— organs on the outside, the genetically iconic mouse with a human ear growing from its back, and a featherless chicken with three wings on one side are some of the images that assault not just a viewer's eye but his or her sensibilities. Confronted with our food shrink-wrapped on Styrofoam trays in a grocery store meat department is the closest to the source many of us will get or want to get. Rockman's work makes us consider an uncertain inevitability.

In his artist's statement for "Paradise Now," Rockman describes the piece: "The Farm contextualizes the biotech industry's explosive advances in genetic engineering within the history of agriculture, breeding, and artificial selection in general. The image, a wide-angle view of a cultivated soybean field, is constructed to be read from left to right. The image begins with the ancestral versions of internationally familiar animals, the cow, pig, and chicken, and moves across to an informed speculation about how they might look in the future. Also included are geometrically transformed vegetables and familiar images relating to the history of genetics."

Visual Arts Center director Kirsten Furlong said putting Rockman on the lecturing shortlist at Boise State was an easy decision.

"The Visual Arts Center is part of the College of Arts and Sciences," she said. "So we're in the same college with the sciences. I thought [bringing Rockman to Boise] would be an interesting way to bridge that difference."

As part of the outreach aspect of Rockman's visit, the Visual Arts Center is sponsoring an art contest for students in which they are asked to submit work about "imagining the future of nature and the earth's ecology." The work will be displayed at Boise State while Rockman is here. The university hopes that students will look at Rockman's work and create their own art that looks at the future of "plants, animals, ecosystems, soil, air or oceans" regardless of what they perceive that future to be. (Visit to download an entry form).

Art is often created for its own sake but in many instances, serves as a tool as well. And whether by accident or by design, viewers of Rockman's work walk away with more than just a visual experience. Rockman said he hasn't yet decided what he'll discuss during his Boise lecture, but attendees may just find themselves wondering where they stand in that precarious place between art and knowledge, humanity and nature.

Thursday, April 30, 6 p.m. FREE, Student Union Building Grand Ballroom. Free parking available in the Lincoln garage. For more information, visit