On ViewSperone Westwater
May 11–July 28, 2023
Melancolia, Alexis Rockman’s fifth show at Sperone Westwater, concerns a series of iceberg paintings on the first floor. On the second floor is a selection of slightly earlier work, concentrating on brilliantly detailed, surreal images of flora and fauna. Rockman has long been recognized for the attention he pays to nature, finding in it not only visual tropes of the most remarkable kind, but a cautionary tale emphasizing our ever-increasing vulnerability to damages brought about by climate change. The blue-white paintings of icebergs, glaciers, and Arctic waters provide us with a visionary understanding of the beauty of the North. But we know now that this landscape is permanently changing, resulting in a destruction we can do little or nothing about.
Arete (2023), which is a geological term defined as a “sharp-crested ridge,” accurately describes the display of masses of ice in a dramatic—a nearly melodramatic—composition. A view of staggering verticals is offered, with rounded tops that nearly reach the highest point of the painting. Their visionary blue darkens as the ice descends. Strangely, the icy verticals look like ghostly figures overtaking the rest of the view, which includes, in the middle register a few boulder-shaped forms, with a bright white taking over the right, as much a wave frozen in motion as the top of a mass of ice. Beneath is a lunar landscape of frozen water, with small extensions of ice set on the flat plane.
Another work presents more color than the cold blues and icy whites I have described. In Chattermarks (2023), a huge curl of white ice, starting at the lower right and moving upward to bend over what looks like a large cavern of dark green and brown and black, demonstrates the sheer otherness of the Arctic landscape. A thin white sheet of ice drops down from within the cavern, suggesting a suspended waterfall. This work is not so deliberately elegant as the first described; it is more massive than apocalyptic in its suggestions. Rockman is concentrating on the superabundant effects of a world in which people and culture don’t mean that much; the self-sustaining atmosphere of a world in which the temperatures are far below zero becomes an example of extreme beauty—but also a clear warning, both visuals and remonstrance being otherworldly.
The earlier works on the second floor are highly particularized studies of nature, in slightly bizarre circumstances. Junk (2019) portrays a boat with an orange, translucent sail, its ribs extending the length of the cloth. It sails into a gray body of water, with brown birds flying low over the bay or sea. Above, Rockman has included two fuzzy, amorphic rounded figures; they are truly strange in this relatively conventional study of nature. What can the dark blue and slate blue furry heads mean? They are set on the right, just above the gliding birds. A luminous yellow fills the sky backing the heads and to the left. At the top of the composition, we come across a thin bar of orange, as though the sunset was starting to take place. Rockman’s mixture of eccentricity, cultural hybridity, and detail make this both a funny and a disturbing painting.
I preferred the northern studies downstairs; Rockman here has a fine sense of the genuine drama attendant to loss of habitat resulting from climate change. His moral stringency is clear. But he confronts issues that are dangerous and meaningful in ways that do not refuse beauty. The iceberg paintings signal the end of the world as we know it; our only remaining chance is to make changes to reverse the troubles, even as we admire Rockman’s treatment of this situation. “Melancolia” is the perfect title for this show.