Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Alexis Rockman, Sci-Fi Wannabe?

Spent a pleasant weekend in Providence, Rhode Island, taking a break from the Southern summer. I was a bit surprised to realize that RISD runs the primary art museum in town, but it is quite good. It’s a small facility, with a little bit of everything (I think – most of the European galleries were closed), and well chosen. I get a lot more out of Roman or Greek art on this scale, rather than the Met.

One of the temporary exhibits was Alexis Rockman’s Manifest Destiny, a monumental painting of a speculative view of the Brooklyn waterfront in the year 5000, after humanity has burned itself out and the world is a lot warmer. Water covers everything, and the view is a cutaway to show the submerged remains of human civilization, the decayed infrastructure of tunnels and bridges, and all variety of swimming creatures, many sporting deformities from centuries of poisoning and genetic abuse. Here’s a couple of sites with pictures.

I saw this painting a couple of years ago when it was part of the Brooklyn Museum’s inauguration of its renovations. The painting is big, 24 feet long, with lots of detail to pick out. RISD has done more with displaying it than Brooklyn did, pointing viewers to some Hudson River and American Luminist paintings in the collection that are sources for the colors, the scale, and some of the atmospheric effects.

My wife, who is very smart (I could put together a blog just of perceptive and trenchant comments she makes in my presence in the course of a day), asked rhetorically how this painting is different than any sci-fi illustrator’s vision of Earth’s future. The realist style would fit in, and all of Rockman’s research is not so different from what someone in that realm would do. This painting may have more referential levels: to earlier schools of American painting, including its title which turns upside down their role in building the myth of a manifest destiny of white Americans over a majestic landscape considered empty; to vernacular museum painting, particular dioramas (his mother worked at the American Museum of Natural History); and finally to the enterprise of contemporary art, whose home base is the Brooklyn pictured.

One question is what separates something that is treated as “art” and given the museum treatment and “popular” art that runs through other channels. Or whether there really is any difference. I had a friend in college who used to argue that the most profound art was psychedelic album covers and whatnot. He said that sort of work carried him the farthest mentally, led to more insights and new experiences than traditional art – especially when tripping, but not only then. To some extent he was trying to get a rise out of those of us who had more conventional notions. A psychedelic design was cool, but not great like Rembrandt. But he was also serious about this argument, and it prefigured the current situation where there is no reason an artist can’t start with that kind of visual vocabulary and continue to pursue its basic pleasures. Still, one wants to see someone take that sort of genre base into a more nuanced engagement with experience. You look for things like whether the work takes into account its own status as an object, or whether the image is presented unproblematically as pure image. I think if Rockman does this in Manifest Destiny, it is by virtue of the scale of the work, which calls to mind different museum contexts and a body of monumental painting one can call to mind. A smaller work with a similar theme, Washington Square, also on display at RISD, is a straighter painting, but other paintings which I’ve only seen on the web are more surrealistic. There’s some range of painting vocabulary at work here, but I haven’t seen enough to get into it. And he consistently pursues a voice of strong ecological protest.

Here in Nashville, there is a student at the Watkins College, Mike Bielaczyc, who has had some success as a fantasy illustrator and is now getting his BFA ( . I’ve only seen a little of his work, but I’m sure I’ll see more before long. I’m interested to see what he does to synthesize his background in fantasy painting, drawing, and even costuming, with the contemporary aesthetics Watkins offers. It could lead to something really engaging, or be a combination that never quite gels. If Rockman is an art-school artist moving into popular modes of visual art, Bielaczyc might be making an opposite progression.


  • This a bit long but your wife’s question is important to me. She is right when she says that she doesn’t see much difference. Tracey Emin put her bed in a gallery and it is art. Emin is daring us not to call it so. The YBA asks us to challenge or accept the authority of the art space to designate what is high and low art; to assign status. I take it that your wife is stating that the emporer is naked. Or maybe that we are and don’t know it. Derrida pulled the loose thread hanging from our coat and before we knew it everything we dressed up in had unraveled.

    I want to start with what I know and think about Rockman’s paintings. His work is just like the sci-fi genre and he is mixing it with Hudson River School materials, techniques and compositional arrangements. Actually many "science fiction" painters and illustrators take a similar approach. Rockman also draws from images of medieval motifs, agricultural methods and processes, actual surgical and genetic experiments, and uses subjects that we find in everyday life appear occasionally as do contemporary issues such as AIDS. He paints both from micro and macro points of view. He invokes the grandeur and romanticism of the Hudson River School and late nineteenth century art and literature. Humans, for the most part are represented only in the built environment and in the reconfigured animals that show evidence of surgical additions (the only actual human-like presence that I can remember at all is a painting of some sort of post-human bi-ped in a post-apocalyptic tree of life painting (Harvest 1991). The ultimate point is that Rockman’s work from the technique to the content to the reference is all derived from and contribution to established genre that are part of the canon of western art. He is embellishing upon a genre by recombining it with new ideas. Doing what Sir Phillip Sydney discussed in the sixteenth century and what Hegel set up as a model for the acquisition and digestion of knowledge via dialectics.

    But that doesn’t distinguish the high art from the low, just that there is a common source of imagery, history and ideas. Your wife’s question has only been partially addressed.

    Another part of the answer is that it depends on who is "consuming" the art and ideas it represents. This is due to packaging and ascribing images to one strata of social status or another . as Matthew Barney's Cremaster trickles down into the mainstream could he not have easily trickled up to the attention of artists, theorists and critics if say the executive producer had been from by Disney rather than Barbara Gladstone? Linda Weintraub draws many connections between the Thomas Kincade and Barney, and demonstrates that at least the commercial mechanisms that get art to its pinnacles of esteem/sales/public attention are very similar for very different artists. But that is only part of it- at least we had better hope it is.

    In january 2003 New York Times Magazine ran an article about the death of two rock stars, Dee Dee Ramone and Robbin Crosby of Ratt. Both died as a result of their rock and roll lifestyles and within 24 hours of each other. But no one (in the press at least) cared when the rocker whose music had sold more copies of their first album than all of the Ramones albums combined. Yet every time one of the Ramones dies it makes news in the New York Times and many other media sources. The Ramones carry more credibility as a cultural influence even though they took what is arguably bubble gum pop and just played it faster, harder and more acerbically. The consumers of Ratt were different than the consumers of the Ramones. The Ramones are considered a major influence in the history of rock and punk. Ratt came to epitomize the rapid decline of MTV and hard rock and the rise of the pop music machine.

    here is a link to that article

    Five years ago of good friend gave me a copy of Phillip K. Dick's Valis- he told me that it would change my life. I turned my nose up at it. Shakespeare changed my life, as did Faulkner, Joyce, Dostoyevsky- but not science fiction. I had been taught “the” canon of high art and literature at a private liberal arts school. I dressed myself in the canon of western culture, accepted Harold Bloom’s book declaring the works that made up its core and marched out to meet the public.

    But I was trying to make of art. My early worked followed closely my education. The farther into this art making that I have ventured I have realized that the way our culture evolves is to learn the “rules” or the canon and then innovate or break the rules. Knowledge has to be a verb not a canon in order to move forward. This is great for artists, not for professors of classical languages and literature. By the time I did get around to reading Valis last year it turned out to hold many important ideas that were relevant to my experience and my work. So maybe it did change my life.

    We have to be careful that we don’t fall for packaging over content. Derrida was trying to make sure that we didn’t by making our tradition ways of understanding and establishing meaning very fragile. Every noun was potentially turned into a verb. Some hate the problem posed by this tension and are glad that Derrida is gone. After Derrida Meaning is potentially fluid. Some don’t want it that way, this way of thinking threatens their work. Now that Jacques is dust everything they want everything ot return to its previous solid state. I think that the problem is great. We must constantly work to make sure that what we know holds true and doesn’t slip or we can allow it to slip when our understanding changes. This is easier to do now, but keeps us on our intellectual toes.

    Today, the very thing that makes Rockman’s work high art also threatens its claim to be that. It operates by dialectics. It is science fiction. It is intentionally derivative of Hudson River. Your wife’s question illuminates the need for constant reevaluation of what we see and accept in its given category. I think that this is a wonderful dilemma.

    By Anonymous greg pond, at 2:10 PM  

  • Long comments seem entirely fitting given the lengths of my posts on this so-called blog.
    I don't know if the point is that the emperor has no clothes, but that the extent to which people who might publish illustrations as posters, magazine art, or book covers may go to the same lengths that Rockman has gone to draw images from various sources, actual experiments, etc. And as you point out, many "genre" draw on Hudson River School or other sources. It raises the question as to whether there is any difference in substance. If not that's fine - Rockman just got lucky and gets to have his illustrations shown off as painting.
    But I think there are a couple of things that make a difference. One is the institutional/market context. If you put it in a museum, it's high art. The guys working in the more genre-specific channels just haven't bothered trying to make the connections to get into the gallery/museum game.
    You see this business of markets - sales channels - marking boundaries of legitimacy and consumption particularly strongly in something like the "outsider art" market. There are a set of qualities about the artist - not the image - that make an artist fit the outsider category, although these are subject to debate. So if someone has had some art classes, forget about it, even if they are doing very similar things. Jerry Dale McFadden has had artists he carried that he couldn't get into some shows because they didn't fit the criteria, even though they fit together perfectly with the outsiders in his gallery.
    In addition to the institutional context, which is powerful but to a high degree arbitrary on a substantial level, I think there is also the possibility that intent influences the art produced on a sort of genetic level. If your intention is to sell work on something of a mass market, you have to look over your shoulder periodically to see if this will work for your audience. While it can result in great work, the work bears the scars of that process of "breaking" the work so it can be bought. Think about music - if you want to sell records, there are very many constraints, so much so that the region of creativity and innovation can be very small, compared to music that heads off into the woods without regard for or hope of sales. So Rockman's work stands on its own, independent of a mission to tie into someone else's story.
    In science fiction writing, one can find very good things, but it does not necessarily have the depth and complexity, and the sheer language craft, of those books in the canon or not. Philip Dick is a bit like your Ramones example, the one sci-fi writer it is cool to like, or DJ Spooky, every art scenester's favorite hip-hop artist. I think I might post separately on some sci fi writers, but one question is whether the text itself offers as rich rewards as something else you might go to. The demands of spitting the stuff out, which is part of life if you are making a living writing genre work, have got to interfere.
    I'm not sure how you see the effect of Rockman's independence of a quick, transaction genre market. And I think there's a bigger question, which is not that Rockman is to be damned by similarity to genre writers, but by unfavorable comparison to other contemporary artists who might take on similar questions using different means. Rockman's painting is very straight, and it also doesn't really deal with processes and human accountability. The lack of humans is a statement, a sort of Gaian view of the world reclaiming itself after the viral humans have burned themselves out. But the paintings are pure image, relatively unselfconsious of themselves as objects, relatively static.
    I'm of a split mind as to teir level of acknowledgement and irony about their institutional context. My first reaction is to say the images are blind to that, but then I am reminded of the locations, often iconic in regards to the progressive art world - Washington Square and Brooklyn, not Sugarland or the Willow Creek Community Church. As well as museum dioramas as a referential source. And that specific reference to the art world, with the understanding that Rockman is a member of it and other members of that community will see the work, may be the differentiation. Where the artwork fits, and positions itself, within the context of a living intellectual milieu.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 10:43 AM  

  • Your point about institutional context is similar to what I brought up about Tracey Emin. By placing her bed in a gallery it becomes more than evidence, it becomes both signifier and sign. Chris Burden's shoot piece is a better example of the way content and cultural status is changed by context. I think that it depends on the way the work delivers its message as to the degree that the institutional context is arbitrary. Painting is generally regarded as "art" because it is painting (although I don’t think this is right), being shot is not granted status as art automatically. The gallery became the vehicle for transformation from real violence or artifice or stunt into art and is therefore integral to the work. The removal of "real world" context allows us to see only a distilled version of the act, to focus on particular aspects of the act, and gives us the chance to consider the event in a different way. It is comparable to the way that events from an author's experience become distilled into narrative fiction in order to articulate the intention of the artist.

    I have some reprints of old books old painting techniques from the sixteenth century. The word "art" never appears in the book. The one of them is Cennini’s "The Craftsman's Handbook." I know that it is not entirely correct to impose contemporary definitions upon old texts but maybe the "a" word is part of the problem. I suggest that the word art needs to designate something other than status anointed by either medium or institution. Painting is painting, sculpture is sculpture but neither are necessarily art.

    Paul Kos defines craft as "the exquisite execution of the idea." Effective communication/expression becomes paramount- whether you are a disciple of MacLuhan, Robert Morris, or pursue more traditional or representational practice. This is what I was getting at in exalting Derrida. There are more and therefore better criteria with which to evaluate art and ideas and to designate titles for them.

    On the subject of Science Fiction: Phillip K Dick may be hip but maybe there are other reasons for his popularity as well. Valis is not a typical science fiction novel. It doesn’t contain many of the typical markers of the genre. It has more to do with Dick’s own mystical visions. I would argue that there is greater relevance to his work than just within the genre. Similarly, the Ramones’ influence extends beyond the early core of punk. But the Ramones aren’t Bach and there isn’t any science fiction I would compare to Joyce. Even though Zamyatin’s We is not as well crafted as Paradise Lost, it does hold some important ideas within its crude prose. Maybe that crude prose is important to the delivery of content, maybe the novel is not the best vehicle for delivering those ideas.

    Last Spring I was watching one of my students give a voice recital in a small chapel. The program consisted of short segments from opera, taken out of context and the MC described the narrative from which the piece was taken. The music was sung in Italian and German anyway. I couldn’t understand it and didn’t need to. What mattered was the impact of the voice in the space of the small chapel. Modernism was invented in part to dispense with the need for such context in order to have a more direct and unfiltered experience of art. That doesn’t work for all artwork. Rockman relies on genre to convey his ideas. He needs the genre but it doesn’t necessarily need him to sustain itself. It is arguable that his attachment to these modes of delivering content is not necessary or that it is a gimmick. I think that is too harsh a criticism. He is invoking images that recall our history to point to our possible future. If the work is altruistic at all it is encouraging us to re-measure our progress by looking backwards. It is also probably very marketable to be somewhat regressive in your techniques in a culture that seems less progressive every day. But if you can accept Kos’ ideas about craft and content then we uphold the world left behind after Derrida. And therefore the adherence to such strict standards and definitions isn’t important and cultural progress develops not from design but from content.

    So there is a way out of the prestige hierarchies established by social status and institutional context. I don’t think that “outsider” art is a legitimate category, as with most titles it becomes a shallow way to reference something that, if it is any good, is likely not so self conscious about its category. Rockman’s earlier work depicting raccoons sodomizing roosters, the AIDS family tree, and re-crafted animals stitched together to make new chimeras seems to me maybe where he steps outside of the genre and the work takes on a more dialectical and unique approach to its subject.

    By Anonymous greg pond, at 4:08 AM  

  • A couple of things. My point about Philip K. Dick was not that he is hip, but that he does transcend the genre, and thus ends up being a sci-fi writer people like even if they don’t care much about sci-fi, maybe for reasons that sound like your summary, “there isn’t any science fiction I would compare to Joyce.” I don’t disagree with that. There’s a level of craft and intellectual originality in Joyce that would be very difficult to achieve within the demands of genre/commercial writing.

    As to institutional context, yes, I was intending to echo back your point. “The stuff you see in art galleries” could be a functional definition of art (except when you look around and start noticing light fixtures, door handles, furniture). And I think we are in strong agreement that art needs to designate something other than what a museum designates, or the conventions of art marketplaces (“outsider art”), or conventions of medium and presentation (if it’s a painting, it is art). Stripping away these things puts a renewed burden on viewers to look at the work (or engage with whatever sensory connections it offers) and think. And there is something beyond “whatever moves you is art” – Joyce is on some level incontrovertible, these books represent a level of intentional human expression that has great power and represents unique opportunities for experience in reading. I’m trying to compose all of this to leave room for multiple readings, for not liking the author, and for fluidity in which artists have comparable status.

    As to Rockman, I think I have convinced myself that his work (actually this one painting and another in the RISD museum – I’m not familiar with the range of his work, but I’m quite comfortable taking a piece presented by itself on its own terms, because the work takes on this solitary status, isolated from the rest of the oeuvre, when it goes out into these exhibition contexts) is different from what I expect from sci-fi genre illustration. It has to do with an indelible mark on his work caused by his engagement with the broader art world, as opposed to operating within the generic circle. It’s those years of painting raccoons sodomizing roosters. It’s a subtle difference – lots of people in the sci-fi world research and construct visions of the future, but Rockman has these resonances of a specific community and social context (New York, the art world) that might perceive itself as being outside the narrative of environmental destruction. This reference makes the work less abstract in concept, more personal, more emotional. Not “the cities” will be inundated, but “our city” (and our community) will be inundated.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 11:37 AM  

  • Hey guys, just a couple short comments before bed. (I heard about this blog from Eve from the Secret Show).

    First is the idea of high art/low art, artist and illustrator. I have had to deal with these titles and catagories since I first decided to call myself an artist. First, one thing that puts this work aside from an illustration is that it was made for the artist, and for the artist's concept. An illustrator is given a contract, with an short description of what to draw for the cover of a book and told how to paint and when to have it finished, or he/she paints Jesus or Elvis with the intent for resale. It is made with an impure heart, the heart of money, not idea.

    The next is who is the artist looking at as an audience and what is the purpose of the work? Being a person myself who is not book smart, but more street clever, I find most works that have been pushed further and over-conceptualized boring. It all feels too specialized for me. I feel often too many artists reference things that only "high brow" people would get to make themselves and their art fit the catagory of high art. So whats the audience going to do with this? And who is the audience? I myself enjoy showing to the less educated people (but never call them low brow) that I run into at the Renaissance Faires and Sci Fi Cons I work at. It gives me a chance to have art up in an arena that it could make a difference. A place where people aren't expecting to find something that makes them question the world.

    So for me, art is communication. I can do an illustrative painting with a subject and narrative that fine artists consider boring, but then 10,000 other people who have not been to art school are moved by it and maybe causes them to question things in their own life. So I enjoy his painting, its narrative and its craftmanship. And of course smile a bit at the comment he makes on art. A painting that lays it out, here's an idea, here's a style and here it is in a gallery. Now what are you going to do with it. (I personally am going to look into his work more)

    Anyways, no fancy comments from me, just the perspective of a man who tries to straddle this gap between worlds.

    By Anonymous Mike Bielaczyc, at 10:06 PM  

  • Mike,
    Glad this got to you. It does seem to me that you've got an important perspective on this sort of question. You probably won't check back to see this, but I while back I was on your website ( for anyone else who happens to dig into old posts). There's interesting stuff, a broad range. It was good to look more at the New Venus Project - I saw it in the student show, but I tend not to get the time to work through web things in a gallery setting.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 7:56 PM  

  • hey david,

    actually i just got to swing by cause i was needing Rockman's name so i can look up some stuff on him. glad you got to check out the site, and i wanted to add one more funny point to the Rockman discussion - he was comissioned for that painting by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. So it is an illustration according to my definition. I wonder how they came to the end product, if he had a free hand or if they gave him a description like I get for illustration deals.

    By Anonymous mike bielaczyc, at 11:42 AM  

  • I haven't looked into the terms of Rockman's deal with Brooklyn, but I'm sure there's an interview about it somewhere. I bet he technically had a free hand because he's a "serious gallery artist" and this is the sort of thing he paints about anyway. Or maybe he made a proposal. Either way, I'm also sure the people at the museum had a good idea what they were getting.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 8:07 PM  

  • Hi! Love you blog articles.
    A passionate fan for years so I started my own blog :-)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:50 PM  

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