Sea change: Alexis Rockman’s epic paintings of the ocean on view at Mystic Seaport Museum
Alexis Rockman became an artist of renown with his paintings that use natural history to explore climate change and the biodiversity crisis. His epic “Manifest Destiny,” which was his first work to deal with the climate crisis, is in the Smithsonian.
His career has also expanded into the movie world. He provided inspirational and concept art for the 2012 film “Life of Pi.”
And his latest project includes multiple large-scale works commissioned by Mystic Seaport Museum.
“Alexis Rockman: Oceanus” opens on Friday at the Seaport, and it consists of an 8-by-24-foot panoramic oil painting titled “Oceanus,” as well as 10 massive watercolors.
Inside the Thompson Exhibition Building at the Seaport, “Oceanus” commands one wall, boasting a vivid look under the ocean, illuminated by streaks of sunlight cutting through the deep. Fish swim near man’s incursions like undersea cables. Strung along the top of the image are tiny ships bobbing above the water surface. Those ships are based on real vessels, including 16 models in the Seaport’s collection and one from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. They are placed in chronological order, providing a timeline of sorts across the horizon.
Rockman often references art history in the works. In “Trophic Web,” for instance, he took some inspiration from cosmographical paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance where the viewer seems to be gazing up at the heavens. Here, the point of view is from below the humpback whale and bluefish, looking through the water toward the sky.
Another painting, “Transient Passage,” is based on the research by figures including James T. Carlton — director emeritus of Williams-Mystic, the ocean and coastal studies semester of Williams College and Mystic Seaport — about how some species have learned to live on plastic in the ocean.
“Drawing from natural histories of the past, Rockman confronts possibilities of a dystopian future …,” Mystic Seaport publicity states. “In saturated colors, Rockman depicts the development of marine technologies over time towards increased exploitation of the world’s ocean, both the forced and intentional ocean passages of people, the introduction of invasive marine life through human activity, coastal fragility in a changing climate, and the ongoing cultural fascination with the unknown and underexplored deep ocean.”
The Seaport project
Here is how the Seaport project came about: Rockman received an email a couple of years ago from Christina Connett Brophy, senior director of museum galleries and senior vice president of curatorial affairs at the Seaport, asking if he would be interested in doing a major piece using the museum’s collection as a springboard.
Brophy says when she came to Mystic Seaport at the end of 2020, one of her charges was determining how the Seaport could reach new audiences and connect with younger people.
She says she was interested in the idea of “connecting marine sciences with fine arts, with the history of shipbuilding and maritime activities over time.”
With that in mind, Brophy thought of Rockman, whom she had met through a friend and whose work she had seen. He was interested in the idea, and the Seaport board was equally enthusiastic.
“It’s a way for us to show maritime history in a different way,” Brophy says.
As Rockman spoke with more people at the Seaport and did research, he says, “What became apparent is it’s such an incredible institution and an amazing resource for maritime history, and I thought, ‘What’s more fascinating than our relationship to the history of the ocean?’ I said, ‘Why don’t we use the collection of the museum as the lens that we see the project through?’”
Rockman was inspired by the Seaport’s collection of models of historically accurate watercraft that goes back to pre-Columbian native peoples and practices.
A logical progression
Brophy declined to say what the Seaport paid Rockman for the commission but noted the exhibition “is mostly privately funded but also with some foundations.”
She says it’s an investment, and the hope is the exhibition will travel to other locations after its run at the Seaport.
“We do add to our collection very frequently, but we haven’t invested enough in contemporary work, in my opinion,” she says, mentioning, too, the goal of bringing new voices to the museum.
Brophy also added a large section to the exhibition on the blue economy and blue technology, reflecting the issue, she says, of “what does maritime mean now? While there are a lot of very difficult scenes in the Rockman series, I wanted to also bring in (information on) who are the really wonderful, creative brains out there trying to find solutions to some of those problems.”
She says that Connecticut is becoming a real leader in aquaculture and other sustainable industries based in the maritime world.
With this project, she says, the Seaport “is not pivoting and moving somewhere that is unexpected. This is a logical progression of where we already are, to stay relevant and to give people really interesting stories to think about in their own connections to the sea.”
Gathering a brain trust
Rockman has been creating large, public-oriented art for decades.
With the Mystic Seaport project, he says, “It was nice to have the access to specialists at one institution because it was really tailor made for that institution. So that was fantastic. I often have to cobble together sort of a brain trust, so to speak.”
The first time he did that was with the aforementioned “Manifest Destiny,” from 2004. With that, he says, “I had the wherewithal to understand that if I were going to make a painting about what climate change was going to do to New York City, I had to have to have some experts support me on that. I was lucky enough to have access to people like James Hansen, the great climatologist, (and agronomist and climatologist) Cynthia Rosenzweig. So I sort of pioneered that model over 20 years ago … (to) get a series of specialists who say whether you’re on the right track. Making art and being a scientist are not the same thing, but I like to have the credibility, and I listen very carefully to what they’re saying. I really don’t want to make an image that wouldn’t have credibility …”
While he consulted with Seaport folks, they also gave him free rein.
“They trusted me to do the right thing. I take that very seriously. The project is not without its tough parts, in terms of its content. I didn’t want to completely alienate the public, but I wanted to deal with the challenges we have to face in terms of the biodiversity crisis, overfishing, pollution, plastic, and so on — (and) global warming,” Rockman says.
Asked whether people in recent years seem more aware of or open to the issues he focuses on in his paintings, Rockman says, “I see a number of different conflicting trends. One is certain people are very much more aware than they ever have been. Unfortunately, a lot of these issues have been politicized, so there’s a stronger-than-ever reactionary part not just of the U.S. culture but world culture that is skeptical of science and specialists and ideas about conservation. I am less hopeful than ever. Personally, I think things are really terrible and not going to get any better …
“If it weren’t for climate change, I think we have a pretty good chance of turning things around in terms of the other stuff, but climate change is just so irreversible.”
And he doesn’t see his art moving the needle.
“Nothing has turned things around. Let’s not fool ourselves. Not saying I don’t believe in what I’m doing as an artist. And I’m not suicidal, but I’m not delusional,” he says.
Movie version of ‘Life of Pi’
While Rockman is in Mystic for the opening of the “Oceanus” exhibition next weekend, he will also discuss his work on “Life of Pi” on Friday at United Theatre in Westerly.
When director Ang Lee was developing his film version of Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi” — in which a boy is stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger after a shipwreck — Jean-Christophe Castelli, who was an associate producer on the project, suggested Lee look at Rockman’s art. Castelli had been working for Lee for a number of years by that point, and he had become friends with Rockman through Rockman’s wife, the writer Dorothy Spears.
Rockman was asked to talk with Lee about the project and “was jumping for joy because I love Ang’s work,” he recalls. He had read the script and told Lee what he thought he could and couldn’t help with.
“It ended up being a four-year, three-and-a-half-year experience off and on. I made the drawings, the watercolors that sold the project to Fox for Ang’s vision,” Rockman says.
Rockman learned a great deal about visual storytelling from Lee. He says that Lee “would really encourage me to be out there and crazy and psychedelic or whatever I wanted to do. And if I did something he didn’t like, it wasn’t so much that he was negative — he would just look indifferent.” And if Lee liked an idea of Rockman’s, he would just say yes.
“Life of Pi” is currently on Broadway, but Rockman isn’t involved in that adaptation.
Rockman also worked on Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 movie “Noah” starring Russell Crowe. “Another boat disaster,” Rockman says. “That was a positive experience, too, but that was much more — I was a number of concept artists, probably one of maybe 10.”
After that process, Rockman realized he wanted to do his own film projects. He has three he’s been working on in the decade since “Noah.” They are “in various stages of possibly happening,” he says. He would produce these pieces about subjects “that I think the world needs to see, that maybe might do a little more than my art. … They’re positive stories about the history of science and ecology and things working out.”
Water, water everywhere
Rockman has always had a fascination with water — and he means any water.
“If I see a body of water — it could be a puddle in the gutter in the sewer — I’m curious what’s living in it. I’d be on a so-called romantic walk with my wife, and there’d be a sewer grating and I’d be like, ‘What’s in there?’ I’m really obsessed with the invisible view, under the water, under the earth. I wouldn’t call it a god’s eye view, but it’s this fantasy of being able to see things that are impossible to see.”
What: “Alexis Rockman: Oceanus”
Where: Mystic Seaport Museum, 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic
When: On view starting May 27, through April 2024, during regular Seaport hours
Seaport admission: $28 adults, $19 ages 4-12, $24 ages 13-17, $26 ages 65 and up
Info: (860) 572-0711, mysticseaport.org
What: “Life is a Story — The Journey of ‘Life of Pi’ from story to screen to stage”
Featuring: Alexis Rockman, inspirational artist and concept artist for the movie; Steve Callahan, the marine and survival consultant on the film; and Ashley Brooke Monroe, “Life of Pi” on Broadway resident director
Where: United Theatre, 5 Canal St., Westerly
When: 7:30 May 26
Includes: Pre-talk reception 7:30-8:30 p.m.
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