By Marie Orttenburger
You’ve probably seen the posters–brightly colored, cross-sectioned landscapes that attempt to simultaneously show all of an ecosystem’s flora and fauna. You can find them in grade school textbooks, hanging on the walls of classrooms or framed at trailheads throughout the Great Lakes region.
One depicting Michigan wetlands hangs in my office.
The posters intend to educate viewers about biodiversity and the makeup of ecosystems. But they feel a bit lacking to New York artist Alexis Rockman, who traversed Michigan gathering inspiration for his exhibition “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle.”
“I would see these posters and I would think, ‘That’s only half of the story,’” Rockman said. “There’s a much darker story that’s happening in these images, and that’s what I’m after.”
Rockman’s response takes the form of five mural-size paintings on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. They are part of an exhibit that includes six large-scale watercolors and 28 field drawings also by Rockman. It opened Jan. 27 and will remain on view through April 29.
The paintings have some things in common with those educational posters. They, too, are cross sections that show an amalgam of the scene’s inhabitants. But unlike the posters, the paintings don’t omit invasive species, disease and pollution. And looking at them does not invoke a serene sense of calm, but a discomforting feeling of conflict.
Each painting features a cast of Great Lakes actors spanning time and space. Pleistocene-era caribou march in the direction of floating timber and shipwrecks in “Cascade.” Microscopic actors like norovirus and salmonella are drawn as large as trout and waterfowl. In “Forces of Change,” a kraken-sized E. coli bacterium wraps its tentacles around walleye and heavy machinery.
The stories are told chronologically from left to right. In “Pioneers,” the Great Lakes’ earliest fish—the likes of lake whitefish, lake sturgeon, burbot—enter stage left. The right side of the painting depicts a stream of invasive species cascading from the ballast of a saltwater freighter. The colors grade from bright blues to warm yellows and greens—a shift from icy clarity to algae-polluted contamination.
Rockman draws inspiration from science and natural history, recalling a childhood fascination with museum dioramas.
“As a kid I’d go to the Museum of Natural History, and then I’d go to a jungle or something, and I’d be like disappointed because I could never see under the water,” Rockman said.
“When I go to these places, I always want to see it through that type of lens,” he said. “It’s this idea of this miraculous view where you can see simultaneity. Scale shifts, different pieces of information—regardless of the limitations of the human experience, you can still see things that matter.”
The exhibition is born from the 30-year relationship of Rockman and Grand Rapids Art Museum Director and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen. In 2013, he asked Rockman about collaborating. The Great Lakes were a no-brainer for the exhibition’s subject matter.
“People are crazy about the Great Lakes,” Friis-Hansen said. “There’s a passion for the Great Lakes for their beauty, for their history, but also for protecting the Great Lakes.”
Rockman sees it as a passion likely to grow.
“The Great Lakes is something that’s right in the middle of America, something that we take for granted, I think, and something that is going to be of vital importance–I believe there are going to be wars fought over the freshwater in the lakes,” Rockman said.
To prepare the exhibit, Rockman went to museums, ate whitefish and spoke with Great Lakes experts. The concepts for the exhibition’s five main paintings were developed over coffee with Jill Leonard, a Northern Michigan University professor of biology.
The large-scale watercolors are concepts that couldn’t fit into the five main murals, Rockman said. The field drawings are monochromatic animal and plant studies made from site-sourced organic materials. They include a bald eagle painted in sand from the Lake Michigan beaches of Saugatuck and a common loon painted in coal dust from West Michigan’s Grand Haven Power Plant.
The “interpretation” section of the exhibition encourages visitors to respond. They can piece together puzzle versions of the paintings to contemplate connections between events and organisms. They can also write responses to the question, “What can you do to protect the Great Lakes?”
Teams of third-grade students from nearby public schools studied Rockman’s pieces and created QR codes that lead to additional content information related to the painting’s subject matter. For example, one group studied the Great Lakes sturgeon and created a video explaining the facts they learned. The QR codes are embedded in the artwork or located on the label next to Rockman’s pieces.
The student responses are inspiring, Friis-Hansen said.
“They’re carrying that thread forward.”
But Rockman isn’t as optimistic.
“Dana and I have always believed that education is our only hope, and that’s why we’re doing this, bending over backwards to make work with kids and do educational stuff, and that’s crucial,” Rockman said. “But—I’m not sure . . . the recognition of being insane is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
“I’m less hopeful than I was ten years ago, but I still get out of bed and do what I do,” Rockman said.
A hardcover catalogue of Rockman’s pieces can be purchased in the Grand Rapids Art Museum store for $34.95.
The exhibition will travel to five other museums after it leaves the Grand Rapids Art Museum, including the Chicago Cultural Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Haggerty Museum of Art of Marquette University, Weisman Art Museum and Flint Institute of Arts. Visit the exhibition’s webpage for dates.