Alexis Rockman lives in Manhattan. His painting "Manifest Destiny," depicting Brooklyn after an ecological collapse that causes extreme flooding, was one of the centerpieces of the Brooklyn Museum's recent re-opening. He is forty-one years old. We talked about scientific accuracy, planning a career in a creative discipline, and wallaby pubic hair. All of my interview questions have been removed.
I'm very interested in policing the boundaries that remind us that we are, in fact, animals, and part of whatever nature is. We are primates like other primates, and the things that I'm fascinated by are the things that remind us that we are organic, that we die, that we have sex, et cetera, that we eat, and I've been obsessed with genres that deal with those. If it's not the history of agriculture, it's hunting and fishing, domestic animals, fantasy, cryptozoology - so when I'm constructing a project, I'm trying to understand it as a historical document and use it's own strategies to undermine itself.
After all is said and done, I think that I arrive at things intuitively. I'm also very much reactive to what I've been doing, so if I've been making big paintings, I'll want to make smaller, more modest, intimate drawings afterwards just as a sense of relief from the daily grind of making something.
When I started my career, I imagined that it would be in one big book, and that was the fantasy. I wanted it to be constructed in chronological order, to be logical without being completely determinist, to be surprising without being completely insane, and have it be twists and turns about how a life perceived issues that were or have been very important, historically and internally. I see my own work in a lot of ways, from stamp collecting to trying to make a case for my own mortality, whatever. But the other thing is, I see it as a deck of cards, and you only have so many moves that you can do, and if you're constantly trying to do something in a new way, that becomes very tiring and you don't want to shoot yourself in the foot
When you're 24 years old, which I was when I had already had a two-year career being a professional artist, and you realize that you're sort of going to get what you wanted, in terms of struggling, and to be an artist, the work is obviously never over, you've never arrived because it's innately humbling and about reconsidering constantly what you're doing in order to move forward. The sense of humility is overwhelming, obviously. You want to be in a position where you give yourself opportunities to grow that won't undermine your own history. I tried to cast a very wide net and then be able to explain to myself - and I always fantasize - The fantasy is, what do you want to be thinking when you're on your deathbed? Do you want to have regrets about being chickenshit, or being lazy or being scared, or basically making work that you knew you could sell, or do you want to take the risks that are inherent with being an artist and try to juggle the pragmatic parts of being a businessperson and the intuitive, larger than life stuff that really drives us all to want to do that.
I think everything gets harder the older you get.
Right now, I'm finishing up my book about Tasmania that I'm doing with two journalists that Random House is publishing next year, and there's 50 small drawings in it that are made out of soil and bark and ferns and fur and whatever from our trip to Tasmania. You know, 30 zip-lock bags full of different stuff, from sperm whale oil to wallaby pubic hair, wombat poop, Tasmanian devil poop. So I'm doing exactly what I feel like doing, which is small things that aren't about making enormous, time-consuming statements.
I always think that if you're going to deal with genres that have to do with fantasy, you have to set a platform that has credibility, or the fantasies are going to be arbitrary. So what I try to do is set up a context for myself that has to do with a genre that I'm interested in, for instance, hunting, and then one of the things that you can do with hunting - or let's say fishing is, how do you take a genre that is familiar, which could be, you know, "Two teenage boys in a boat catching a fish," that's the American dream. We all grew up with a collective consciousness, and unconsciousness. If we're American, we looked at National Geographic, Golden field guides, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, depending on how old you are, and that's a really interesting resource to mine. So one of the things you can do to that to play around with those traditions is change scale, change species, change the humans - there's any number of things you can do. So what I'm interested in is setting the table with a sense of authority, and then finding ways to call into question some of those beliefs.
- Interview by K. Thor Jensen