Artist’s exhibition offers new take on time, space in the Great Lakes

By MARIE ORTTENBURGER
Capital News Service

GRAND RAPIDS — You may have 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 classroom walls and at trailheads throughout the Great Lakes region.

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’re part of an exhibit that includes six large-scale watercolors and 28 of his field drawings.

It will remain on view through April 29.

The paintings share things in common with those educational posters.

They, too, are cross sections that show an amalgam of the scene’s inhabitants. But unlike those posters, they don’t omit invasive species, disease and pollution. And looking at them doesn’t 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. In “Pioneers,” the Great Lakes’ earliest fish — the likes of lake whitefish, lake sturgeon and 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.”

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The exhibition is born from the 30-year relationship of Rockman and Grand Rapids Art Museum Director 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, he visited 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 biology professor.

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?”

Nearby Grand Haven Public Schools students studied Rockman’s pieces and created art in response. Visitors can view them via QR codes throughout the exhibition. In the education gallery on the lower level are responses to the artwork by teams of elementary school students.

Student responses are inspiring, Friis-Hansen said.

“They’re carrying that thread forward.”

But Rockman sounds less 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 10 years ago, but I still get out of bed and do what I do,” Rockman said.

The exhibition will travel to five other museums after it leaves Grand Rapids: the Flint Institute of Arts, Chicago Cultural Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Haggerty Museum of Art of Marquette University in Milwaukee and Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.

Marie Orttenburger writes for Great Lakes Echo.