Alexis Rockman


Artist statement from Paradise Now:

My artworks are information-rich depictions of how our culture perceives and interacts with plants and animals, and the role culture plays in influencing the direction of natural history.

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. In The Farm I am interested in how the present and the future look of things are influenced by a broad range of pressures- human consumption, aesthetics, domestication, and medical applications among them. The flora and fauna of the farm are easily recognizable; they are, at the same time, in danger of losing their ancestral identities. [1]

The Farm, 2000
oil and acrylic on wood panel, 96 x 120 in.
Courtesy of JGS, Inc.


"Alexis Rockman is a native of New York City. Born in 1962, he grew up in and around The Museum of Natural History. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts. His work has been exhibited internationally in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and is in the permanent collections of several prominent institutions, including Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Baltimore Museum of Art." [7]

Core concepts:

  • depictions of how our culture perceives and interacts with plants and animals [1]
  • the role culture plays in influencing the direction of natural history (similar theme also in G. Gessert's writing/work). [1]
  • how the present and the future look of things are influenced by a broad range of pressures- human consumption, aesthetics, domestication, and medical applications among them. [1]
  • create a context for questioning [8]
  • depict ambivalence[2]

Additional works:

  Tropical Hazard, 2000, [3]   Biosphere: Laboratory, 1993
      Oil on two panels, 96 x 128 inches, [4]
  The Ecotourist, 1997, [3]   The Trough, 1992
      Oil on wood panel, 40 x 48 inches [4]
  DNAid Billboard, Lafayette & Houston Streets, NYC, September 5 - 30, 2000, [5]
  DNAid, a series of public art projects that address the implications of today's genetic research on our futures, sponsored by Creative Time, N.Y. [6]

"Alexis Rockman is known for painstakingly executed paintings and watercolors of the phenomena of natural history. In these new "dioramas" he creates three-dimensional spaces, seen in shallow relief, which are encased in layers of resin. The artist uses actual objects and photographs along with painted and sculpted forms to create strange and hermetic vignettes."[8]

  Golf Course, 1997    
  Envirotex, digitized photograph, trash, oil paint, Astroturf, golf ball, golf club, soil, cast plastic human femur on wood
40x32x4.5 inches
  The Rec-Room, 1997    
  Envirotex, digitized photograph, oil paint, building supplies, insulation, electrical outlet, human hair, U.S. currency, women's underwear, framed watercolor, pleistocene, mice, veneer on wood.
48x40x3.75 inches
  The Romantic Flower, 1997    
  Envirotex, digitized photograph, oil paint, garden hose, art flowers, sparay paint, pleistocene, latex rubber on wood.
48x30.5x4.25 inches
"It's great when people ask me: does that really exist? I want to create a context where a lot of questions are asked."
"I'm sick of being earnest. I've got to put more of my personality and sense of fun in the work before I end up so crotchety, old and sober. I want to embrace ambivalance, confusion, sadism, and humor."
"No, squirrels don't fuck rats, frogs don't have rodent tails, there is no such thing as a flower with a penis and monsters don't live under golf courses. I don't know what it means. I don't think there is a truth."[8]



The Farm (detail), 2000
oil on board (see text below) - note the role of scientific collaboration/concepts

Sara Rosenbaum - interviewer

Alexis Rockman is a painter who works on a very large scale. We are discussing one painting, The Farm, which includes plants and animals, past, present and future.

Note: all bold text is [emphasis added] for teaching purposes.

Q: What was the inspiration for this impressive canvas? How did you develop the images?
Rockman: There was a nugget of this painting sort of buried underneath some of [my] other stuff. The real struggle for me in terms of developing this image was that I worked with a molecular biologist at the Museum of Natural History. [emphasis added] And I felt I had a lot to learn before I even started it in terms of the history of genetics and artificial selection.

Q: How did you get started on the painting?
Rockman: It couldn't be more linear. My mom used to work at the Museum of Natural History. I spent two years living in Peru as a child, sort of in the margins of shantytowns. She was an archeologist doing Inca stuff there. I grew up in New York City, but I traveled all over the world. I started out thinking that I would be a scientist. Eventually, over the years, I ended up becoming interested in other types of practices, like certain genres of filmmaking, animation. I think what I ended up doing was really a combination of all those different interests. I've always been interested in the history of the representation of nature.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the structure of the picture?
Rockman: The way I constructed it is that, as in a lot of Western culture, we read things from left to right. And the way I tried to organize the structure, and then also break it, is that on the left side of the image are the ancestral species of the chicken, the pig, the cow, and the mouse, if you look carefully at the bottom. And if you go across to the right, you see contemporary versions of the pig, cow, chicken, and mouse. And as you go [further] to the right, you start to see permutations of what things might look like in the future, based on artificial selection -without losing the identity of the so-called "cowness" or "pigness," so that they still have some resemblance to the ancestral species that they're coming from. And, obviously, the dog is a very clear example of human intervention --breeding them. I felt it was a real challenge to balance the familiar with the unfamiliar, and have it not just be a freak show and completely alienating. Because part of my interest is in negotiating cultural ambivalence. That's what this painting's really about-and how nervous and confused we are about what's happening in the biotech industry and the rest of the planet, and what that means in terms of our own identity.

Q: Are you at all interested in the political issue of genetic manipulation?
Rockman: How could I not be? I think that it's one of the more interesting hot topics. I think that fears about it are kind of ludicrous. [Genetic manipulation is] very strange, but actually very understandable at the same time.

Q: Well, one of the things that's interesting about your work is that there are both genetic pasts and futures coexisting on the same plane
Rockman: Right. It's a type of democratic space.

Q: You appear to be almost value-neutral.
Rockman: I try to be, absolutely. Listen, no one's value-neutral. The most interesting place for me to be, for myself, is to be honest about my ambivalence. Painting is, I think, viewed culturally as rather self-indulgent, especially if you're dealing with pictorial iconography.

Q: Do you have any sense of your aesthetic antecedents?
Rockman: I've looked at everyone that I could get my hands on. I sort of [see myself] on a collision with [the art ] of people like Charles R. Knight, who is a paleontological illustrator, and Sid Meade, who's an industrial visionary/industrial designer who designed, amongst other things, "Blade Runner." But he also designs airplanes. I mean, he's very hands-on. He's as responsible as any individual for the way our industrial world looks. In terms of the fine art world, I can't think of anyone [like him] really. I think that that's a particularly fine-art place to be, right?

Q: Is that corn down low in the painting?
Rockman: Yes. Something that might resemble corn.

Q: And at the base of the painting?
Rockman: You have a field of soy beans, squash, tomatoes, corn, fruit fly, dog, parakeets, moths-which aren't really developed yet.

Q: And whose DNA is that?
Rockman: I think it's human.

Q: It's human DNA?
Rockman: Yes. But it's really meant to be just DNA. And that's a mouse, a real mouse with human cartilage-on its back. Really, the only thing that doesn't exist now is the chicken, the cow, and the pig.

Q: Right-the future ones.
Rockman: Right. And some of the vegetables. It's much more fun for me to be able to tweak a tradition of agriculture and a tradition of painting of agriculture.

Q: We've come a long way from Stubbs, or somebody like that.
Rockman: Well, we have and we haven't. I actually did a lot of research into the English domestic tradition [of animal breeding]. And some of those cows look weirder than that cow. Well, that's the mechanized moment, right? Where humans were seen as close to God and animals were machines.

Q: Have you ever studied biology?
Rockman: Not formally
Q: Are the details--well, obviously, the future of these creatures is hypothetical. But are the details in general biologically correct?
Rockman: Oh, yes. That's the plan. They [must have] credibility. I mean, that's the thing that sets the table in my mind. Absolutely; they're correct as far as I know.

Q: Or as far as people are speculating.
Rockman: Yes. I mean, listen: Some guy that's a specialist on jungle fowl could come in and say, "That chicken is really wrong." And I would say, "That's interesting. Why?" It's too late to change it, but there's always someone to tell you you're wrong, right? I went to the extent that I felt was appropriate. I looked into the origin of chickens and jungle fowl in Southeast Asia and thought, "That looks like the one."

Q: Most of your work, to the degree that you're dealing with evolution, doesn't have much about human evolution. Are you interested in the human genome project, for example?
Rockman: My understanding of that is that it's a wonderful PR opportunity. I think it's very interesting. But I think that so far the most interesting things have been in the way humans have altered their landscape. And that is human evolution, absolutely. And it's also a different can of worms. I don't know if I want to go there.

Q: Are you interested in the medical benefits that might come out of this?
Rockman: Oh, how could I not be? But I'm also very skeptical. I'll believe it when I see it.

Q: Are you a vegetarian?
Rockman: No. Are you? But I have compassion for all living things-unless I want to eat them.

Q: Or wear them, or whatever.
Rockman: I actually am somewhat of a vegetarian, because I'll eat cheese and fish, but I don't eat meat or chicken. But that's not a political position; it's more of a narcissistic position.

Q: Do you read a lot about science that's not project related?
Rockman: It's always project related. I love travel writing, too, [but] I love to read science.

Q: How about science fiction?
Rockman: You know, strangely enough, I'm not that interested in it. That's something I'd like to look into in the future. Art should [involve itself with science fiction] more, but there tends to be a certain amount of, shall we say, restraint-inappropriate restraint-when it comes to fine art. I think that the most interesting stuff [in terms of science fiction] comes more from pop culture


Picturing DNA by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles & Marilyn Nissenson
Copyright © 2000 Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles & Marilyn Nissenson
All Rights Reserved

Article source [2].



[7] (Guyana)
[9] (mud drawings)