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Eden rocks: the art of Alexis Rockman.

Pan, the Greek god of nature, was a savage trickster who delighted in triggering fits of unreasoning terror in humans. His legacy survives in the word derived from his name: "panic," a term that we use to describe any uncontrollable fear, but that referred first to our fear of the forest, our terror of the dense fecundity and ferocity of nature. This human fear of all that is not us is the electric pulse of Alexis Rockman's paintings, the seductive bass line of his art. Like the fire-eater who makes us feel the flame, Rockman surrounds us with what we fear, and gives us new ways to view it.

The sheer size of the works often puts us in the same scale as the animals they depict. Eye to eye with the most alien of creatures, we are enmeshed in a food chain of ruthless complexity, confronted with the brutal liveliness of decay and destruction. Or we are party to ribald Spectacles of unlikely interspecies copulation. Time explodes: long-extinct monsters mingle with modern pets and pests. Continents collapse, allowing encounters between animals ordinarily separated by vast geographies.

Challenging traditional ways of seeing, and of categorizing the living world, Rockman redefines nature's hierarchies and relationships. Obsessed with zoology and botany from childhood, he grounds his extrapolations in science and observation, yet his images are illuminated by exuberant collisions of visual techniques and concepts - from science-fiction films, landscape and genre paintings, biology illustrations, museum dioramas, and the fabulous literature of freaks. As surgically or genetically engineered creations lark gleefully with Frankensteinian menace among the serious denizens of recognizable reality, evolution is both demonstrated and revised. Rockman's paintings are rife with inside jokes and challenges obscure to most viewers who are not biologists, but their ravishing prettiness requires no special expertise to decipher.

Rockman's furious biopolitic is played out through intellectual assertiveness, delicate subterfuge, broad pranks, and fierce irony. Cutaway views let us see hidden secrets - above and below water, below ground, the interior drama of meat-eating plants, the worm at home in the apple. Many of them suggest aggressive narratives, single frames in a flux of action that the viewer's mind completes. Their saturated palette is a code of primordial messaging: in nature, Rockman explains, bright colors and sharply defined markings are signs of danger, warning flags of the toxic and venomous. The creatures he favors don't hide to survive, but boldly warn of the consequences for any foolhardy predator who might be tempted to attack them.

There is no cute humanizing of animals here, no interpreting their actions in the light of our own social mannerisms. Rockman's paintings are the opposite of anthropomorphic. A more appropriate term, in fact, might be "zoomorphic," viewing people as animals. When the work of human hands appears it demonstrates the results of the hatred that is the defensive tool of fear. Yet these human mediations are often as integral to the whole as are Rockman's parasitic fungi, strangling vines, the carnage left by rapacious predators. Though actual Homo sapiens rarely turn up in his vast menageries, and have the stature of figurines when they do, still we, the human viewers, are as much the topic of this work as are the animals and plants that swarm the canvases.

I consider all this having just returned from slug patrol in my urban garden. I march the fenced perimeter morning and night with my slug stick, slaughtering mollusks on sight. Meanwhile, inside my aged house, I hide packets of blue poison behind every cupboard, preparing for the annual invasion of field mice, who come in for shelter when the weather turns cold. The primary survival technique of humankind is to modify the environment to suit us. It is our nature to fear and hate nature as it is. Our impulse is to defend by destroying - to create a sterile environment, without competing, parasitic, predatory life forms. Bees do the same in their sanctum hives. Warrior ants guard their hills from invasion. But humans are much more thorough. Surely all art and artifice, from bridges and bombs to paintings and books, is linked to our urge to modify and control the environment. There's a relation between editing life in a garden and framing a visual image. Art is violence, they say, and you gotta break some eggs.

Yet here, at the end of one of our artificial time cycles, we dither, pained by our strangely hideous successes. Rockman is well aware of the looming threat. In his "Concrete Jungle" series, 1991-94, he examines the secret gutter and garbage world of creatures adapted to life on the human periphery. Inspired by science-fiction films, the stunning "Biosphere" series, 1992-94, projects compressed enclaves of earth and sea life into the artificial environs of a future in space, having abandoned Earth's no longer viable atmosphere. Complex systems are caged and lit by spinning galaxies. The spectacular Biosphere: The Ocean, 1994, shows a tank starring a black-tipped reef shark that shreds its dinner with a prosthetic sawfish beak; the shark is intubated, and a see-through window reveals its nerve bundles. But the ornate sea life crowded around it is so intricately various that except for the obvious shark, the uninitiated cannot separate the natural from the manipulated.

Seventeenth-century still-life painters trotted out their bravura skills to render foodstuffs as both ornamental and delectably edible. The genre conventions were simple: jewellike settings of fruits against velvety darkness, the illusion of casual arrangement, cut flowers matching beauty to beauty. But in Ornitholestes, 1991, Rockman sets his rose and raspberries outside, among ants, and introduces a sprightly Ray Harryhausen miniature dinosaur snatching his dinner egg from a vulnerable nest. The bird parent, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the predator, takes flight in terror. As if in one of the Greek tragedies evoked by the punning title, a reputed ancestor of the bird family has ripped through time to devour his own distant heirs - perhaps with the aid of the invisible human who collected those berries in a leaf. Birds don't usually build nests so exposed; I suspect some bipedal interloper has placed it here. The dinosaur's darkly comic interruption of this conventional scene jolts my recollection that creatures of his ilk are resurrected daily, channeled from their deep graves as petroleum. The present is powered by the immolation of the ancient dead, and one side-effect of the resulting pollution is damage to the reproductive capacities of the living.

The rose bears a new bud in the 1991 Still Life, which mingles the still-life genre with the formal power portrait of the king, general, or statesman. The ruling subject in this work, however, is the Wolpertinger, Bavaria's folk-fabled winged, antlered, and bird-clawed rabbit. (A modest American version of this creature is the prong-horned jackalope famed in Western postcards.) But Rockman's bungled bunny, the old Bavarian flag draped behind it, is a knowing and ruthless predator, enthroned with a carrot for a scepter and a regal jar of carrots and blackberries as an offering at its feet. The jar lid bears a decapitated mallard, and has rabbit heads for handles. Proof of the tyrant bunny's proclivities, and of the use for its vampire fangs, lies in two subtle blood spots near the neck of the dead albino lab rabbit at its feet.

The seriousness of these treatments skews the slapstick into malevolent omen. Jokes, we've heard, are a coping response for fear. And there is ambiguity enough to set us on a questioning binge. Rockman calls Still Life his Nazi painting, and provides Bavarian clues. But if we recognize a too-familiar, human monsterhood in this cannibal potentate, are we acknowledging a cruelty basic to our natures or an aberrant product of our choices and actions? That flag and jar, after all, were never made by opposable-thumbless paws. Would rabbits be as vicious as humans if they were able?

Of all the countless species depicted in Rockman's work, the most ubiquitous is the lowly ant. Ant visitors enliven every dreadscape, busying themselves over a carcass, partying around a bead of dew. Army ants are determined paratroopers, clinging in living chains to flying insects and birds fleeing their battalions. In the 1989 Dynamics of Power, a darkly glimmering mob of leaf-cutting ants blankets and devours the blue wings of a morpho butterfly. It is scarcely accidental that in our sci-fi fantasies invaders from other planets often resemble this family of insects. Ants are emblems of all that humans most dislike in nature. They bite, and some breeds are venomous. They are suspiciously small and sneaky. And they are never alone. One ant is the scout for uncountable hordes. They are mysteriously well organized and they have no individuality - every ant from a given nest is indistinguishable from its sisters. Their armored exoskeletons and weaponed helmet heads are profoundly alien.

Rockman's most recent series is based on a 1994 trip to Guyana. A voluntary self-restriction to invent nothing, to paint only what he saw, has not diminished the disquieting elements of his vision. One group of Guyana paintings are formal watercolor portraits of different varieties of ant, executed with the dramatic artificiality of science-fiction monsters. The close-up views enhance rather than diminish our sense of these creatures' strangeness. In Untitled (Ant Head with Mites), 1995, Rockman picks up a repeated theme in his work: the pest besieged, the threat revealed as prey to enemies of its own. This particular warrior's fearsome mandibles form a convenient ladder for the mites that feed upon it - a surprising vulnerability in our enemy, and an oddly sympathetic one.

A Guyana oil, as luminous as watercolor, depicts a soft morning in the jungle canopy. Fixed to a high branch, glutinously attached to it at tail and mouth by a rabid fungus, is an ant's corpse. This Ant with Parasitic Cordyceps Sporaphore, 1995, as it is precisely labeled, has been invaded by a fungus that takes over ants' nervous systems and drives them to seek the highest space available. When the ant reaches a desirable site, the fungus kills it and uses the corpse as a spawning ground, shooting spore stalks upward through chinks in the insect's armor. Even ignorant of this fungus, the viewer is struck by the ghastly trouble besetting this otherwise faceless creature. Something has gone terribly wrong, and the ant is made individual by its ailment. In this context the malignant brightness of the spiderlike flowers drooping from the branch triggers alarm without our knowing that these are ghost orchids - parasites. And the tick of fear we feel is not for the pathetic ant, it is a deeper unease with the universal cycles of decay and destruction that engulf us all.

Months after Rockman had left Guyana, and when he was working on the paintings that grew from his studies there, an accident at a gold-mining operation spilled millions of gallons of cyanide solution into the river system he'd explored. Much of the life he had seen and was painting was destroyed. The last and largest of the Guyana paintings seems saturated by the knowledge of this cataclysm. The dense population of Neblina, 1995, is huddled in high tree branches emerging out of the dense mist that rises from a barely visible river. Maybe this gathering of disparate creatures is not coincidental; perhaps they have all fled to this height seeking refuge from the metallic toxins hidden in the mist. Certainly the work's colors are muted and softened with an elegiac tenderness that strikes me as a reflection of grief.

Rockman also makes huge phylum paintings that derive from a construct often seen in biology texts, the common Arbor Vitae diagram, which shows a tree whose trunk and branches support a progressive array of life forms ascending from bugs and other despicable forms down around the roots, upward through the birds and mammals, to, on the topmost branch, the peak achievement of all life - Homo sapiens. The diagram represents not just a theory of zoologic hierarchy, of course, but the premise of Western philosophy and culture. In Rockman's hands, altogether different things happen. His Arbores Vitae have fascinated biologists from Norman Myers to Stephen Jay Gould. The Rockman trees may be populated with aberrant mutations, as in Harvest, 1991, Aviary, 1992, or Phylum, 1990, or with extinct creatures, as in The Bounty, 1991. The twisted trees themselves have often grown through welded and battered metal pipe; limbs extrude from old, limb-shaped plumbing joints, as flagrant evidence of human intervention. Some do not progress upward so much as they droop and swoop and meander. In the huge Evolution, 1992, the weight of life's complex history has broken the piped tree that was meant to contain and categorize it. The escapees range from creatures of the fossil record to the modern mallard, a placid milk cow, and beyond to the fantasy zone of the chest-burster from the movie Alien, or the tattered winged dragon from Dragonslayer. No linear progression is visible, and the lone meek humanoid is a hermaphroditic mutant.

For many viewers, it was the phylum paintings that linked Rockman with Hieronymus Bosch. The connection is an albatross for him, but it is understandable that we should make it, given Rockman's vivid palette and old master-ish technique, the dense activity and the number of figures involved in his larger paintings, his absorption in physical aberration, and his hobgoblin portmanteau creatures in joke form - the pig-and-cow hybrids, the marsupials with riveted-metal bird beaks, and so on. The more important link between Bosch and Rockman, however, is a shared emotional subtext, and the emotion involved is fear. The inevitable climax of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights is torment. Since no one knows what he actually meant by it, I can assert without hesitation that the work is an admonition to the artist's 15th- and 16th-century Christian viewers, a brimstone depiction of their deepest fear: that human life springs from and produces corruption. That the yawning fires of hell were inevitable for them, that they would be punished for simply being what they were. That their very nature was a sin. Certainly Rockman's work too can be interpreted as a sophisticated admonition to his fin-de-siecle audience: that human inclinations to abuse the living environment doom us to a terrible revenge.

Rockman's underlying text, however, is far more unsettling: our perception of ourselves as separate from and superior to nature's ferocious flux is an illusion. All our distancing techniques of hierarchy and categorization, of technology and philosophy, merely disguise the depth of our enmeshment in nature's ongoing process. As the pinnacle not of a tidy Aristotelian evolution but only of our own vanity, we are a puny part of something far more complex and enormous than our feeble imaginations can grasp. And our art and artifice, like the ink jet of the squid, or the toxic sweat of the frog, are desperate shields against panic.

Katherine Dunn, the author of Geek Love, is currently at work on a new novel.
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Author:Dunn, Katherine
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Words:2493
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