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Fantastical Paintings Illustrate Great Lakes Ecology, Threats And History

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 16, 2017 8:45 am

In a series of paintings as fascinating as they are disturbing, artist Alexis Rockman depicts his vision of the Great Lakes. The five major works in the new show “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle” measure 6 feet by 12 feet, and include science-fiction-like representations of water, animals and man-made threats.

Rockman (@alexisrockman) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss his art and its importance.

Interview Highlights

On how the Great Lakes became the focus of his project

“I’m by no means an expert on the Great Lakes, but I have a fascination with ecology, and the Great Lakes are ground zero for the future in terms of freshwater. Twenty percent of the Earth’s freshwater is there, and it has a very fascinating and dark history in terms of invasive species and exploitation. So when Dana Friis-Hansen, the head curator, director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, asked me what my dream project would be, I immediately thought of the Great Lakes.”

On referring to his work as “natural history psychedelia”

“The things that I’ve been attracted to over the years have been ideas about nature, and life on this planet and geology, and scientists have been some of the greatest storytellers in terms of making sense of the world. But one of the things that’s so exciting about being an artist is that you have an opportunity to make images.

“My wife Dorothy is a writer, and she’s really encouraged me to sort of cultivate this idea of the lyrical and the poetic and the subjective, combined with this idea of the history of scientific knowledge and natural history, to create this sort of hybrid language that is natural history psychedelia. The history of life on this planet is psychedelic — it’s almost hard to comprehend how exciting it is and how phantasmagorical things can be. The stories of extinction, of invasive species, some of the darker parts of human legacy that have left not only humans doing things to humans, but humans doing things to other life on this Earth.”

On his work on the 2012 film “Life of Pi”

“I really didn’t have much to add in terms of the art direction or production design of an Indian city like Pondicherry, for instance, but I said, ‘Well, I have a lot of experience in ecosystems like mangrove swamps, and I know about the Sargasso Sea,’ even though I’ve never actually seen it myself, unfortunately. I thought, the island that Pi experiences is something I could really help with, the underwater sequence where Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, come together and experience the world through a single vision, tiger vision. When they go to the bottom of the ocean and see this fantastic world — which wasn’t in the script — I thought that was something I could really sink my teeth into and think about it in terms of some of the great cinematic moments from film history, like the Star Gate sequence from ‘2001,’ or some of the evolutionary sequences from Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life.’ So I thought about it in the context of film history, and, what could we do that had never been seen before?”

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On creating art out of sand

“Part of what I’ve been doing for over 20 years is going to a place like, for instance, the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Lake Michigan, and grabbing some sand and putting in a Ziploc bag and making some notes about things that I have seen there, and think about how I wanted to portray Sleeping Bear Dunes using the sand itself as the material. No paint, no pigment, just sand. So I make this mixture with matte medium, which is just a type of acrylic paint without the pigment, and I make a drawing out of sand, for instance the Lake Huron locust. There’s a wonderful tradition of using natural pigments, from cave art through the Earth artists of the ’60s and ’70s, so it’s in that tradition, though it’s pictorial.”

On feeling connected to the lakes

“I have a tremendous fondness and affinity for the lakes, and I think they’ve been pretty neglected by America. The freshwater issues that we’re all gonna face in the future, they’re gonna become crucial assets — more valuable than anything on Earth — in the future.”

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