As with Tara Donovan, I seem to be a sucker for Alexis Rockman. In Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago I got to see a new work, Romantic Attachments at the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s a large scale painting that recasts Bernini’s Ecstasy of S. Teresa with a modern woman and a recreation of the hominid species Homo Georgicus serving as the angel. The figures are posed exactly as in the Bernini sculpture. Since this is painting, not sculpture, Rockman needed to fill in the setting of the scene. He puts the characters on a cliff over a desolate, stormy, deep perspective landscape. The foreground has vegetation details, insects, like any good Baroque painting. He gives his work the full Baroque treatment, even in the production process—he included a large number of studies of individual characters, landscapes, and the figure groupings, going so far as to do some of them in red chalk. It reminded me of Jeff Hand’s studies for his sculpture of suspended faux fur teddy bears, although the historical reference was more implicit in Jeff’s case. Working for a museum context, Rockman can afford to go whole hog with it. Of course Rockman also has a model of Homo Georgicus built by an artist at the American Museum of Natural History. (Homo Georgicus is a recent discovery (the species was identified in 2002), according to Wikipedia a connection between homo habilus and homo erectus, and maybe the early hominid to make it to Europe.)
The Rockman painting and subsidiary works are put together with sculptures by Tony Matelli of compromised chimps. As in dressed up in t-shirts, one impaled with a battery of implements (machete, shovel, garden sheers, arrow, crowbar, screwdriver) with an arm cut off and lying a few feet away, another guy leaning against a wall puking. A picture of how we anthropomorphize and torture primates.
It’s a good match with Rockman’s piece, the visual similarities between the early hominid and the chimpanzee and the two putting these figures into anachronistic and whatever the comparable word would be for making an animal do something not natural to it.
Beyond the fun of Rockman’s painting, and the loving embrace of the Baroque (seeing the Bernini work as a teenager was one of the strongest responses I remember having to any single piece of art), I thought about the substitution of the human ancestor for the angel as the messenger of divine or spiritual ecstasy. In some ways there is something primitive and primal about angels. I suppose people (but not Frank Capra or Wim Wenders) think of them as ethereal, perfected beings, but they are also less developed than humans. They are not possessed of the same free will. They are messengers, phenomena. Shaped like a human, but not capable of interacting on the same level. A different species, same genus, so a pre-homo sapiens ancestor is a good analogy.
There’s also the perspective of the woman who replaces Teresa. As a contemporary, where can she experience a similar sort of ecstasy? Apparently in encountering the connection to the deep history of human descent that places people in the evolutionary chain. Part of biodiversity, part of long timelines.