Art exhibit highlights Great Lakes ecosystem

Coaster brook trout oil painting by Alexis Rockman

The Great Lakes are one of the most important natural treasures in the world, holding 20 percent of the earth’s fresh water and forming an interconnected system that is among the most beautiful, economically significant and ecologically complex regions on the planet. In January 2018 the Grand Rapids Art Museum presents a solo exhibition of new work by New York-based artist Alexis Rockman that examines the past, present and future of the Great Lakes, based on Rockman’s extensive research, travel within the region and conversations with environmental scientists, historians and Great Lakes specialists.

Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle is a multi-faceted project anchored by five mural-sized (72-inch by 144-inch) oil paintings, each exploring a theme that emerged during Rockman’s field research and engagement with Great Lakes experts. The exhibition also features a selection of approximately 30 field drawings created from organic materials collected at various Great Lakes sites, including key flora and fauna in the ecosystem, invasive species and those under threat of extinction. Completing the series, a collection of six large-scale (72-inch by 52-inch) vibrant watercolors offer an unexpected, immersive point of view.

Born and raised in New York, Rockman is known for his critically acclaimed, ecology-based works of art included in public and private collections worldwide. His work has been shaped by a lifetime interest in nature, and has found inspiration in explorers who immersed themselves in the wilderness and recorded their observations in notebooks and publications. The artist’s large-scale panoramic works are influenced by the history and practice of scientific representation, as well as methods of historical and contemporary artistic expression, drawing inspiration from 17th-century Dutch still lifes and 19th-century American landscapes.

Throughout his career, travel has informed Rockman’s practice, with extended visits to Guyana, Tasmania, Madagascar and Antarctica; each trip yielded an important series of artworks. Now his journey of discovery continues in the Great Lakes region, where his keen observation of the world is revealed in the detail and precision of his paintings and works on paper.

The exhibition’s suite of five oil paintings are the centerpiece of the exhibition, highlighting themes Rockman identified through his research: “Pioneers” focuses on the water itself and the aquatic life therein; “Cascade” examines the history and effects of human activity; “Spheres of influence” looks at the relationship of the atmosphere to the water; “Watershed” considers the land around the Lakes and its impact on the ecosystem; and “Forces of change” reflects on the challenges and opportunities of recovery in the post-industrial age.

“The Great Lakes are impacted by massive threats to their future, and I believe art is a valuable tool for promoting ecological thinking to a wider public,” Rockman said. “Using the language of natural history and art history, these paintings offer a hybrid pictorialism. They celebrate the majesty of the Great Lakes while identifying factors impacting the ecosystem, including climate change, globalization, mass agriculture and urban sprawl.”

Visit the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s website for more information.

By Chris Hunt.