What do sponge fly larvae, Pig Salmonella, a grain elevator, history paintings, honey bees, sunsets, whale bones, the Laurentide ice sheet, Botulism E, the U.S.S Edmund Fitzgerald, a snow goose, a drone, and your childhood memories of getting spooked by taxidermied animals have in common?

The only answer can be the recent opening of the traveling exhibition “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle,” which will end its run at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (the opening venue) on April 29 and then travel to the Cultural Center in Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and a handful of other area museums (see the venue list below).

In full disclosure, I have not yet had the opportunity to visit this exhibition, but I’m familiar with Rockman’s other work and the exhibition is accompanied by great online resources to explore.

Alexis Rockman grew up accompanying his mother to her job at the Natural History Museum in New York. The fascination with the preservation and display of the natural world has never left his work, which ranges from abstract renderings of icebergs to small drawings of flora and fauna to his famous, enormous, and often apocalyptically garish depictions of bizarre eco-systems. His paintings have been called “natural history psychedelia,” because of the way they present science through an almost surreal artistic lens. Because of his idiosyncratic style, Rockman was asked to assist with some of the visual design for the 2012 film adaptation of The Life of Pi.

Rockman’s large works include a pictorial key that identifies each object and species in the picture—much like a museum diorama or field book. Each painting required substantial research about the ecology, geography, and biology of the landscape depicted. For the “Great Lakes Cycle,” Rockman partnered with scientists at Northern Michigan University to learn about the history of the various species that call the fragile Great Lakes ecosystem their home. Part of what makes Rockman’s work so engaging is the way it brilliantly straddles art and science, and naturally invites not one, but several close looks, as viewers match the information on the key to what they see in the painting.

Of course, pairing art and science in a museum is not a new phenomena. The first successful American museum was opened in Charles Wilson Peale—an artist and natural historian known for his powers as a consummate taxonomizer of all natural wonders. Rockman’s paintings follow this trajectory, but also undermine it. There are no well-organized shelves in Rockman’s works. Instead, various species, objects, and landmarks are thrown into the composition in willful chaos in order to reinforce how humanity’s engagement with nature over the centuries has often been haphazard and ultimately damaging.

Rockman borrows from numerous art history traditions, which he often points out when discussing his own work. Sometimes the references in the paintings are explicit, like the visual shout-out to Frederic Edwin Church (an American Landscape painter in the Hudson River School) in Forces of Change from the “Great Lakes Cycle” (I included the red box).

Other art historical references are more subtle. For example, Rockman’s cockamamy landscapes full of hybrid creatures and crazy ecological scenarios are similar to the bizarre geographies of Hiernonymous Bosch paintings.

Rockman has claimed in the past that he is not an activist and that such a label might weaken his art. However, in the Great Lakes Cycle, Rockman has accepted that his power as an artist to initiate the education process about environmental stewardship is inherently political. As he says in the catalogue:

Part of my job is to challenge a sense of complacency. I think we are at a point where in terms of education everything is political. What you do with your life matters in terms of the future of the planet. You have to use every bullet in your arsenal.

These works are about as subtle as a trainwreck, but they are surprisingly fun, despite their depressingly urgent call to take environmental responsibility.

I like Rockman’s work because of this very tension between humor and dead-seriousness about stewardship. The work brilliantly offers numerous entry points, which allows the paintings to be appreciated by a people from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.

So whether, you’re in it for the landscape painting or an educational experience about microscopic organisms in Lake Michigan, take an hour or two to fall down the trippy rabbit hole that is “The Great Lakes Cycle.” I know I’m looking forward to it.

“Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle” will be at the following venues:

Grand Rapids Art Museum – through April 29

Chicago Cultural Center – June 2 through October 1, 2018

Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland – October 19, 2018 through January 27, 2019

Haggerty Museum of Art of Marquette University, Milwaukee – February 8 to May 19, 2019

Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis – October 5, 2019 through January 5, 2020

Flint Institute of Arts – May 9 to August 16, 2020

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