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Art Review

An inconvenient truth in Alexis Rockman's work

Alexis Rockman's ecologically charged works, including 'Blue Emission' (left) and 'Grey Twister, Green Field' (below left), are on view at the Rose Art Museum. Alexis Rockman's ecologically charged works, including "Blue Emission" (left) and "Grey Twister, Green Field" (below left), are on view at the Rose Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of Rose Art Museum)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 13, 2008

WALTHAM - Impressive in so many ways, Alexis Rockman's recent large-scale paintings nevertheless feel somehow rote. Displayed in the airy Lois Foster Wing at the Rose Art Museum, they create an atmosphere that is instantly seductive. Rockman's flair for paint - his ability to play with degrees of translucency, his bold way with palette-knife textures, and his handling of gloopy stains of lurid, saturated color - is something to marvel at.

Unlike the more illustrative paintings from earlier in his career (he once worked as a columnist and illustrator for Natural History magazine), this recent work makes you want to grope for words like "bravura" and "tour-de-force." But in emotional tenor, these paintings - referred to by the artist as his "weather series" - are almost impossible to tell apart.

Rockman has a reputation as an activist in the fight against environmental desecration: He made a huge splash in 2004 with a giant painting of New York as it might look (mostly submerged) a millennium from now. But in an interview published in the show's catalog, he expresses a desire to free himself from the burden of being labeled an artist-advocate. Now, he says, he's thinking much more about "painterly opportunities."

Rockman gives over the largest part of most of these works to descriptions of dra matic natural phenomena. The idiom recalls both the painterly vigor of Abstract Expressionism and the feeling for the sublime in J.M.W. Turner's late work. The virtuosic paint handling is constantly breaking free from mere description and taking on a life of its own. Thus the artist evokes the volatility of extreme natural phenomena, along with their potential for mind-cracking beauty.

But Rockman's attempts to marry this gutsy, semi-abstract idiom with more traditional representation don't quite come off. Near the bottom of his huge, vertically oriented painting of a blizzard, for instance, is a minuscule snowplow, its switched-on headlights poignantly feeble in this vast, virtually lunar landscape. Other works contain a tiny airplane, a chairlift, irrigated fields, or wind farms. These figurative details, all fastidiously rendered, are dwarfed, in each case, by vast clouds of colored paint that swell, surge, suck, and stream.

Despite Rockman's best attempts at uniting them, you can't help feeling that there are two different visual registers at work. And far from producing an interesting tension or dissonance, the clash produces a kind of distraction - a desire in the mind's eye to marry them that is continually frustrated.

Still, you have to credit Rockman for daring to tackle big subject matter. Natural disasters caused by climate change certainly go to the heart of our age's anxieties. Traversing the show, curated by the Rose Art Museum's director, Michael Rush, one lurches from blizzards and avalanches to tornadoes, mudslides, and melting ice floes.

If landscape is to continue as a viable genre after what Bill McKibben famously called "the end of nature" (McKibben was referring to the all-pervasive effects of global warming), we are presumably going to see more of this stuff. But for all their virtuosity, Rockman's paintings seemed oddly perfunctory to me. They lack the specificity of great art. They register on the mind as vamped-up illustrations of TV-news disasters rather than a direct response to reality - even the psychological reality of an imagination gone wild, a fear given free rein.

Of course, this may not register as a criticism to Rockman, who is quite open about the sources of his paintings: He describes them as "computer-manipulated, archetypal images that we've all seen, or if we haven't seen them we feel that we know them."

That word "archetypal" seems to be key. It's just hard to know how Rockman intends it. Is he dealing in archetypal anxieties, trying to tap into and express genuine fears in this age of incipient climate change? Or is he deliberately peddling in cliched visions of natural destruction as a way of ironizing our anxieties, suggesting they have something cheaply titillating about them?

I came out of the show unable to decide. The first interpretation suggested someone a little too earnest and naive; the second someone wearied by his own convictions, straining to be too clever.

Either way, Rockman is certainly pressing buttons. His paintings, all of them here on heavily gessoed paper rather than canvas, harness imagery we associate with Hollywood disaster movies like "Twister" and "The Day After Tomorrow," but convey it in roiling paintwork that conjures the high romance of painterly self-expression.

Sometimes, it has to be said, he really pulls it off. "Wind Regime" (2007), for instance, is a stunning painting. A mysterious effusion of intense blue - a rain cloud? A toxic emission? - takes up more than three-quarters of the painting and chimes gorgeously with the green and yellow of the sun-kissed field below.

The painting sets up a thrilling spatial dynamic, too. The cloud darkens as it looms in the foreground at the extreme right of the picture, growing lighter and wispier to the left, where it streams toward earth at the horizon. At right angles to this celestial diagonal, Rockman sets up another diagonal, in this case a long, receding line of wind turbines.

Perhaps because they play such a pivotal role in the painting's formal logic, the miniature wind turbines don't feel like a gimmick here. But in "Red Twister," a less resolved painting, the smattering of radio towers in the distance serve no useful purpose other than to indicate scale. And the contrast between the massive twister and these tiny towers is so hyperbolic that the feeling evoked is not so much the sublime as "the sublime." You feel, in other words, that Rockman is merely toying with the notion, treating it as an aesthetic category rather than an authentic response to natural - or not so natural - phenomena.

The handful of smaller works in this show impressed me more than most of the larger ones. They seem free from the overblown rhetoric of the larger paintings, and in formal terms less formulaic. "After the Rain" (2006) channels the spiritual intensity of Caspar David Friedrich's high Romanticism, but in the context of a forest stripped bare by acid rain. "Blue Emission" (2006), meanwhile, conjures mysteriously toxic effects in a factory setting darkened by night.

Many of these paintings feel like a step up in some ways from Rockman's earlier, more precise renderings of animals and plants. Those works, from the early 1990s to about 2004, were about (in his own words) "piling up information for a miraculous gaze, seeing the impossible."

These new paintings - attempts to picture a different kind of "impossible" - are more ambitious but, in the end, not as convincing.

Alexis Rockman: The Weight of Air

At: Rose Art Museum, Waltham, through July 27. 781-736-3434, brandeis.edu/rose

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