Alexis Rockman

Famous since the mid-1980s for painstakingly painted phantasmagorical botanical and zoological scenes, Alexis Rockman presented expressionistic landscapes in “The Weight of Air,” his first solo museum show in a decade. Made between 2005 and 2007, the thirty-nine oils on paper, which the artist refers to as his “weather drawings,” take as their subjects hurricanes, toxic emissions, landslides, tornadoes, diminishing glaciers, and evaporating seas. The quasi-abstract, often heroic images result from an improvisational and muscular handling of materials: Rockman pours onto gessoed paper a mixture of oil paints, alkyd resins, and mineral spirits, the density of which varies from thin wash to thick syrupy pool. Using a combination of toothbrushes, palette knives, turkey basters, eyedroppers, and spray valves, he creates energized, scumbled, and stained surfaces depicting extreme natural forces. He also uses small brushes to insert details like airplanes, bridges, trucks, oil wells, and windmills, which punctuate the lush surfaces.

Rockman based these landscapes on his own digital collages of images culled from the Internet and from magazines. Although they depict environmental catastrophes, they are more painterly and less ominous than, for example, the artist’s epic mural Manifest Destiny, 2004, which prophesied a gory apocalyptic Brooklyn waterfront following an extreme sea-level rise. Rockman’s new works are more akin, in their loose brushwork and high-keyed palette, to his 2006 series “American Icon,” in which American landmarks decay amid lushly overgrown landscapes.

The artist’s reliance on science and geography is apparent in Aral Sea II, 2006, a densely painted image of a scorched desert wasteland alluding to the titular Central Asian sea, which has been dramatically shrinking for decades, due mostly to massive diversions for agricultural irrigation. Four lone camels appear alongside a beached boat near the high horizon line, while shiny brown-black skeletal remains of another ship in the foreground remind the viewer of this area’s parched fate.

In many of his more abstract images, Rockman inflects Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime with environmental warnings. Color, texture, and light are the primary focus in works like Blue Storm, 2006. This mural-size landscape is dominated by seductive and amorphous azure and white storm clouds in an orange sky streaked with a single white lightning bolt. Below this threatening but magnificent expanse, two tiny cars appear on a narrow road in an otherwise unpopulated verdant terrain. His smaller-scale, more spontaneously painted works are among his most visually appealing. Orange Waterspout, 2007, is a poster-size seascape in which the sky looms large, as in paintings by Dutch landscape master Jacob von Ruisdael. The peaceful sunset is intruded upon by a dark viscous tornado pulling water into its growing vortex. In this Turneresque image, the vertical waterspout is juxtaposed with a fiery orange sky, while the churning sea, a neo-expressionist surface of black and brown drips, recalls Anselm Kiefer’s scarred wastelands.

Rockman’s poetic, explosive new paintings signal his departure from making often fantastical scenes overpopulated with mutated beings, and position him as a formidable landscape painter steeped in tradition yet mindful of twenty-first-century dangers.

Francine Koslow Miller