Five (and a half) Questions with Alexis Rockman
January 11, 2011
In advance of Alexis Rockman's lecture at American Art on Wednesday night at 7pm, we spoke to him from his Tribeca studio about the talk, monster films, inspiration, and his current exhibition at the museum, Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow.
Eye Level: Tell me about your childhood influences, including your mother an anthropologist who worked with Margaret Mead, and your stepfather, a jazz musician?
Alexis Rockman: I was lucky to have parents that let me develop my imagination. I had a lot of time to myself and drawing was very important to me, counting natural history and monsters my favorite things to draw. The Museum of Natural History was a big draw. I was always interested in reading (and looking at) the Golden Field Guides and magazines such as National Geographic. I also watched a lot of monster movies. The ones that moved me the most were Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1945-46), Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), and James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). My father, a jazz musician from Australia, introduced me to them, and they struck a chord in terms of their sense of wonder and the fantastic and their relationship to nature. When we would visit Australia, I found it romantic on some level. At the museum, the dioramas and art that I saw were also looked at by the people who made some of the movies I was drawn to. The guys who made King Kong spent their careers looking at Charles R. Knight's paintings at the Museum of Natural History. I felt early on that there was a strange vacuum, and I was born at a time when you could make paintings about these sorts of things: adventure travel, serious science, and fantasy.
Eye Level: Is there a typical day in the life of Alexis Rockman?
AR: Sure. I get up with my family, Dorothy Spears and her two sons Alex and Ferran, at 7:20. We read the New York Times, drink some coffee, and talk about our day. From there I play basketball (during the winter indoors) or go right to the studio, walking our dog Padme from the West Village to Tribeca. Sometimes I’ll have a studio visit. I'll work until around 6pm. During the summer I tend to quit early (4:30pm) because I like to play basketball outside. I work every week day.
Eye Level: That makes me think about your motto: be conscious.
AR: One can hope...it's my goal.
Eye Level: The weather paintings and the "Half/Life" series evoke the Washington DC color field painter Morris Louis, a hero in these parts.
AR: Isn't he great? My body of work, "Half/Life" is deliberately referencing him. It had to do with postwar industrial might and the dark side of that. When Morris Louis gets it right there’s nothing more perfect. This is horrible to say, but there is the idea that his materials killed him. In his paintings, he used some sort of magma, a hybrid material. The idea of the triumph of modernism, and I consider his paintings a sublimely modernist gesture, there is a dark side and that is what these paintings are about.
Eye Level: How do you balance seriousness and humor in your work?
AR:I always felt like humor was something risky in anything you wanted to take seriously. American culture treats comedians as entertainers, even with artists like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I think it's exciting and dangerous. "Golf Course" (1997) which shows a manicured golf course and perfect landscape above, reveals, through a cutaway, not only a secret landfill that it's built on, but a monster who lives below with half eaten human body parts littering its lair--hilarious!
Eye Level: Can you give us a preview of your upcoming talk at the museum?
AK: It’s going to be about art history and how nature and some of the things I’m interested in have been represented by other artists, from Dutch still life painting to Mierle Ukeles, who became the unsalaried artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation in 1976.
Thank you, Alexis Rockman. We’re looking forward to hearing you on Wednesday night.
- Alexis Rockman, Evolutionary Biology, Genetic Engineering, Deforestation, Climate Change, American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum
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