New York

Alexis Rockman

Jay Gorney Modern Art

Alexis Rockman’s new series of paintings, collectively titled “Biosphere,” 1992–93, is inspired by one of the artist’s favorite movies, Silent Running, 1971. I’ve seen this film several times, although many of its details (no doubt indelibly etched on Rockman’s mind) remain vague to me—this movie tends to be a late-late-night treat. As I recall, it involves greenhouses in space that preserve the flora and fauna of Earth. When for some reason the mission must be aborted, chief gardener Bruce Dern—psycho character-actor par excellence—murders his fellow crew members rather than sacrifice his precious biospheres. He then continues to tend garden with three midget robots (actually manned in the film by limbless amputees). The rest of the movie chronicles his descent into full-fledged—what? It’s clear from the start that he’s nuts. Maybe being severely bummed out is the frosting on the cake of the Dern character’s psychosis.

Rockman has tapped into a rich vein of psychotronic cinematic pleasure, so it’s doubly disappointing that “Biosphere” is such a bore: disappointing, one, because he does so little with the given narrative material other than graft onto his by now familiar mutant-animal freaks; and, two, because his painterly technique, always impressive, seems here flattened out, airless, merely illustrational. The paintings are, quite simply, dumb, and no amount of technical flourish, no sparkle of Bleckneresque twinkle-twinkle-little-star, can change that fact.

Rockman’s sensibility is that of an adolescent boy; hence the penchant for horror, sci-fi, gross-out. This adolescent-boy psyche has proven a very appealing source and obsession for a number of different artists (think of Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Pruitt•Early, even Richard Prince). It is also the high tide for this particular weltanschauung in popular culture (of course, the 14-year-old mentality, male and female, never strays far from the heart of popular culture). Consider the immense success of cretin humor, from Wayne and Garth to Beavis and BUTT-HEAD.

Rockman doesn’t blatantly work this terrain, but I wish he would. It’s edgier. He should either do that, or return to the seductive, romantic, old-masterish, and wannabe-decadent landscapes that characterized his previous corpus. That stuff went against the grain of contemporary, “advanced” taste, yet within the context of a decimated art market it made for an ideal chattel. People could buy Rockman’s paintings and coo, “Oooh, he’s such a wonderful painter, his technique is so good.” A few years have passed since then. The market’s crisis persists, but it has to some extent stabilized. No longer does it whirl in the sick delirium of free-fall. And this being the case, fine painting alone just isn’t enough to guarantee quality and interest. Post-Duchamp—that is, for most of this century—we can say.“So what?” to technical proficiency divorced from intellectual aspiration.

David Rimanelli