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Alexis Rockman’s haunting eco-dystopian paintings transport viewers to a dire future. Toxic brightly hued liquids ooze out of sewer pipes, animals fornicate with other species, the Bronx Zoo becomes a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and creatures fuse together into entirely new beings, forecasting what might become of the planet if it continues to deteriorate. His fascinating naturescapes even caught the eye of director Ang Lee, who commissioned the artist to create the wondrous creatures depicted in the film Life of Pi. This fall, the New York artist has two shows, “Alexis Rockman: Rubicon,” which opened September 17 at Sperone Westwater, and “Drawings From Life of Pi,” which opened September 27 at The Drawing Center. Whitewall met up with the artist a few weeks before his Sperone Westwater show to chat about what it was like to see his creatures come to life on film, his two exhibitions and how we can help save the environment.
WHITEWALL: How did your interest in nature start?
ALEXIS ROCKMAN: I always loved nature and ecology and animals and stuff like that since I was a kid. I noticed that there were stories or parts of natural history that weren’t really focused on, and as I got older, I realized that culture tends to not want to look at certain things that have to deal with mortality and extinction, and some of the darker stories of ecology. So I guess I became attracted to some of the darker parts of that equation.
WW: Why did you decide to become an artist, instead of a conservationist or scientist?
AR: I don’t know if I could take being around some of the tougher things that conservationists have to deal with.
WW: Why did you want to become an artist?
AR: I loved movies and I loved the art that went into making movies before they were made. I also loved art, but I didn’t know you could have images in the genre that I was interested in until I got to into art school and I realized you could make paintings about some of these things that I thought could only exist in the movies.
WW: Can you tell me about your show at Sperone Westwater?
AR: My show here is a meditation on some of the issues that I’ve been interested in for many years, if not decades. Focusing mostly on New York, about New York, except for the four watercolors right in front of us — even though I could argue that this could be the Hudson Harbor and this could be Central Park — about New York and focusing my intention on New York as a geographic site, the Bronx Zoo, and then the Gowanus Canal.
WW: Why did you select the Bronx Zoo as one of your subjects?
AR: The Bronx Zoo is a place that I went as a kid and as a precious library or arc — I have such mixed feelings — because there will be no place in the world for these creatures and I find that heartbreaking every time I look at it, so I wanted to make a painting about that type of recognition.
WW: Was it that New York Times article about the dolphin dying that made you want to create the scene Gowanus?
AR: I was in my studio and I heard on NPR that the dolphin wandered into the Gowanus Canal and I ran to the computer to see, and sure enough, there were pictures of it gasping for breath as it stuck its nose out, and I thought that is just the most depressing thing in the world. I wonder what else died in there, and that’s sort of what that composite character is about.
WW: Tell me about the composite character.
AR: There’s a long tradition in Indian art of composite characters — tigers that make up an elephant, or Indian miniatures, and I looked at lot of those types of images when I was working on the Life of Pi. I thought it would be the perfect thing to do for the painting, to do not the exotic, but just the most mundane, typical animals that used to live in this area and make a catfish out of them.
WW: Can you explain your process when creating the scenes for Life of Pi? Did you read the book, and then do drawings?
AR: I read the book first before I even met with Ang, and then I read the script. I would do black drawings in my studio with white or light colored gouache, and I’d do thumbnails. I’d go up to the office on 27th Street and we’d put them on the floor, and I’d tell them what I thought should happen. He would say, “I like this, I’m not so interested in this, why don’t you develop this one.” And I’d go back to my studio and get very excited, make like too much work, and come back with three versions, and then he’d say, “I didn’t think of this, or let’s talk about this.”
WW: How do you envision the future?
AR: I think Elysium is a lot what it’s going to be like, just a giant slum with people scrounging for resources. There will be animals here and there, but it will basically be all the shit you see in the subway.
WW: Why do you think it’s important to pay attention to these issues?
AR: One of the great things about being an artist is that you can deal with stuff without having to get approval from corporate America. I’m interested in the underdog, the things that aren’t going to get attention and those things, they make some people nervous. They make people nervous. Pollution. Extinction — all that stuff.
WW: What do you suggest the public at large do?
AR: We live in a world where you vote with your pocketbook about what you want to be supportive to, so do some homework and try to understand who you patronize and what you’re supporting when you buy something.