Innovation and Continuity: Alexis Rockman’s East End Field Drawings at The Parrish Museum by Andrew Buck, Ed.D.

Alexis Rockman’s East End Field Drawings exhibit at The Parrish Museum exemplifies an important observation imparted by John Dewey, a prominent early 20th century educator, regarding continuity of experience. Dewey, who authored Experience and Education as well Art as Experience, makes the case that learning transpires though reflection upon lived experience.  Dewey also claimed that the accumulation of a person’s previous felt experiences informs his or her perceptions and interactions in current and future life experiences.  While Dewey focused on the importance of individual experience, he was equally mindful of the social contexts within which learning might occur.

Applying this lens to Alexis Rockman, the continuities of Rockman’s personal biography, his evolving long-term artistic practice, and our current civilization’s trajectory towards ecological demise appear to converge in his East End Field Drawings. For example, the subject matter of his work consists of flora and fauna, a passionate interest of his since childhood when he collected mud turtles, red-eared sliders, alligator snapping turtles and box turtles in four terrariums. His East End Field Drawings extend beyond a naturalist’s preoccupation with anatomical accuracy in so far as the images emerge from his research on living threats which may cause irreparable harm to ecosystems. His iconography is based upon species which are invasive or nearing extinction in the local environment. Rockman’s work alludes to questions of human survival, pointing indirectly to predicaments which threaten our global environmental. These concerns extend beyond his personal spheres of interest, making his artwork relevant and timely amidst contemporary outcries for environmental stewardship.

Looking at Rockman’s artwork over time reveals an aesthetic continuity in his growth as a visual artist. His isolated use of animal and plant pictorial imagery presented unframed in a collective group of individual “drawings” is a strategy which he has used in the past. They are reminiscent in layout to his conceptual studies for the film Life of Pi. However, the aesthetic properties of East End Field Drawings which have been drawn with local organic soils and natural materials suspended in polymer are strikingly different. They resemble lithographs from a distance and appear to be painted rather than drawn. The execution of the renderings is so precise, yet simultaneously fluid and lyrical, viewers may finds themselves enjoying work which falls between Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare and masterful Chinese bird and flower Sumi-e paintings. Rockman sets up a visual tension between the wet, fluid flattening of form and precise articulation of shape which becomes visually poetic in his deft handling of materials. His painterly approach to drawing creates an interplay between the ephemeral qualities of image making and the fleeting nature of existence.

While the Rockman’s story of aesthetic development will continue in his next body of artwork, the text which accompanies this exhibit makes reference to the East End Field Drawings as research. In fact, the drawings are outcomes and products of his research which has visual, environmental, and historical dimensions.  In this sense, his artistic practice falls within the tradition of contemporary artists who are schooled into making research a critical part of making art. Hats off to The Parrish for making good use of it. Rockman’s appointment as Artist-in-Residence at The Parrish Museum will engage local students in understanding that making art is a reflective, thoughtful, committed process; and not exclusively a matter of highly prized skills.

© Copyright by Andrew Buck 2017