On ViewSperone Westwater
Alexis Rockman: Lost Cargo: Watercolors
November 20, 2020 – January 16, 2021
Alexis Rockman’s medium for the 22 marine and submarine works currently on view at Sperone Westwater—watercolor and acrylic on paper—is paradoxical: watercolors are notoriously susceptible to moisture while acrylic paint, though water soluble, is waterproof when dry. So, the paintings are ephemeral and permanent at the same time, like nature itself. Actually, the entire show may be seen as a paradox. Rockman has, it seems, a message about environmental crises, the sea, and history to impart, but his method of communication is oblique, eschewing words in favor of mute images. These watercolors prove that Lessing was correct when he claimed in his 1766 essay “Laocoön” that there are limits to what we can express in either words or images. Words are great for narrating temporal sequences, but cannot express visual experiences; images can, but they cannot explicitly narrate.
A splendid example: The Boyd Massacre (2019). The title refers to an event that took place in 1809 New Zealand, which saw some 70 Europeans killed and eaten in retaliation for the abuse of a young Māori chief. This portrait-format work divides into two planes: above the surface of the water a sailing ship burns, while in the lower we find a mélange of sea creatures and a pocket watch. Only in Rockman’s fertile imagination could we see this scene, but there is no possible way to relate the marvelous zaniness of the image to the 1809 catastrophe that provides its name. We only have the image, which no amount of iconographic exegesis can securely explain. Yes, the ship is on fire, so it may be time to abandon it, and yes, a pocket watch under water is likely to be stopped forever—time may be the subject here, but Rockman’s caginess prevents us from reaching any solid conclusions, leaving open productive space for interpretation.
Rockman’s fascination with burning ships reappears in The Slocum (2020). On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum sank in the East River. Some 1,021 passengers died in the disaster. Rockman paints the sidewheel ship blazing away, observed by a gull floating on the river. As with The Boyd Massacre, there are no people visible. So, we have a juxtaposition: nature (the gull) versus a self-destructive human invention. However, the watercolor medium renders the scene dreamily fixed and cleansed of horror. It is wonderful as an image, exclusive of any direct message.
One more calamity: RMS Lusitania (2019). This complex work divides into an upper and a lower plane, but makes more use of depth and perspective than others included here. The ocean liner Lusitania was sunk on May 7, 1915 by a German submarine, with 1,198 casualties. Rockman, again, depicts no bodies but does leave a poor dog stranded on a raft, simultaneously a witness and a victim. The smoke in the far distance might be the Lusitania sinking, but the undersea section is dominated not by a U-boat, but instead a huge sea creature. There is pathos here: the dog stands on the frontier between the human and natural orders, but he will presumably perish because he is not of the sea. In other words, the painting invites narrative, but the particular case of the dog is far removed from the famous torpedoing of the liner, an event that eventually drew the United States into World War I. Rockman, ultimately, is not engaged in history painting in the art-historical sense of the term. The moment—the event itself—is absent, and only some tantalizing hints remain.
Another seemingly doomed dog appears in Drifting (2020). This one appears to be a canine version of Melville’s Ishmael, the only survivor of the Pequod, who clings to Queequeg’s coffin until the Rachel rescues him. Does the dog merit salvation because he is a dog, and thus not cursed with human evil? As always, it is hard to say precisely what Rockman intends, although the image is powerful enough to make any dog-lover weep.
In addition to using titles to link his works to historical events, Rockman employs them to pay homage to three artists and one naturalist. Paulus Potter (1625–1654) died prematurely but was a notable painter of animals (dogs especially) and landscapes; Abraham Storck (1644–1708) and Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755–1821) were marine painters. And Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709–1746) was a naturalist who described several now-extinct species. Together, these men suggest a larger context for Rockman’s work, both as artists who preserved a vanished vision of the sea and, in the case of Steller, as an elegiac scientist who, like Rockman, captured the depredations of humans against nature.