Photo Essays

Alexis Rockman Captures Long Island’s Flora and Fauna in Dirty Field Drawings

Alexis Rockman, "Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum)" (2014) from Vineyard Field Pond (courtesy the artist)
Alexis Rockman, “Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum)” from Vineyard Field Pond (2014) (courtesy the artist)

Alexis Rockman is probably known best for his large-scale, vividly colored paintings that encapsulate the threatened state of the natural world, often integrating futuristic imagery. For two decades, however, he has also created simple, naturalist drawings of individual flora and fauna he observed around the world that capture the diversity of our ecosystems. (The conceptual artist Mark Dion, whom Rockman met in 1988, introduced him to the idea of field research.) From Guyana to Brazil, tar pits in Los Angeles to a fossil field in the Canadian Rockies, the sites Rockman has surveyed have inspired a large number of works he creates using material sourced from those very locations. Last year, the New York City–based artist’s site of choice was close to home: the East End of Long Island. Ninety-three of those works on paper are now on view at the Parrish Art Museum in the exhibition Alexis Rockman: East End Field Drawings, revealing not only the island’s incredible richness of wildlife and vegetation, but also an aspect of Rockman’s work that is strikingly different from his grand paintings.

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Installation view of ‘Alexis Rockman: East End Field Drawings’ at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York (photo by Daniel Gonzalez, courtesy the Parrish Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

“The Field Drawings are the antithesis of my paintings because they are so immediate,” Rockman says in an interview included in the exhibition catalogue. “They function like pictograms, icons, fossils, or shadows. Because I am using soil or sand as the pigment, the outcome is unpredictable. I never know how the drawing is going to come out.”

Although he considers them field drawings, the works were actually not completed on site but rather rendered in his studio, drawn as reflections of his trips rather than faithful studies of the moment. Rockman worked like a scientist nonetheless, researching the history and fragile ecosystems of the East End and learning about its wildlife and plants. Over the course of seven day trips he explored 18 pockets of the region, noting the birds, plants, fish, and even small insects he saw while gathering sand and soil in Ziploc bags that he carefully labeled with their sites of origin.

At a glance, each work resembles a delicate ink drawing, with faint streaks seeping into dark stains set against stark backgrounds. But the grittiness of the natural world is evident in the works, tying each organism back to its specific location — which he also includes on the paper in light pencil, like a field note. Further blending art and science, Rockman also researched the Latin names of every specimen and included them in the titles of his drawings, emphasizing them as documents of existing creatures. Many of the drawings show rare or invasive species, highlighting an often invisible tension present in these environments. One can only just make out the ghostly petals of a drawing of the threatened pale fringed orchid, for instance, while the rapid-growing mile-a-minute weed stretches across paper in dark, sharply defined lines.

East End Field Drawings also reminds viewers of the incredible diversity of life present on Long Island: great blue herons at Georgica Pond share their habitat with eastern red foxes, wild turkeys, raccoons, brown bats, and opossums; at Kirck Park Beach, Rockman observed jellyfish, harbor seals, sea turtles, and mako shark. Although straightforward and encyclopedic — in contrast to the dense scenes characteristic of the rest of his oeuvre — the field drawings address the same universal concerns about climate change. They capture the environment of this time, while inviting contemplation about the consequences of human activities on the future states of these species.

Alexis Rockman, "Pale Fringed Orchid (Platanthera pallida)" (2014) from Lazy Point (courtesy Baldwin Gallery, Aspen)
Alexis Rockman, “Pale Fringed Orchid (Platanthera pallida)” (2014) from Lazy Point (courtesy Baldwin Gallery, Aspen)
Alexis Rockmam, "Mile-a-Minute Vine (Polygonum perforliatum) from Marsh House (2014) (courtesy of the artist and The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
Alexis Rockmam, “Mile-a-Minute Vine (Polygonum perforliatum) from Marsh House (2014) (courtesy of the artist and The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
Carolina Saddlebag9x12
Alexis Rockman, “Carolina Saddlebag (Tramea Carolina)” from Cedar Point (2014) (courtesy of Baldwin Gallery, Aspen)
Guineafowl12x9
Alexis Rockman, “Guineafowl (Numididae)” from Marilee Foster Farm (2014) (courtesy the artist)
Asian Tiger Mosquitoe12x16
Alexis Rockman, “Asian Tiger Mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus)” from Hook Pond (2014) (courtesy the artist)
Little Brown Bat9x12
Alexis Rockman, “Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus)” from Georgica Pond (2014) (courtesy of The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
Striped Bass18x24
Alexis Rockman, “Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis)” from Hither Hills State Park (2014) (courtesy the artist)
Mako Shark18x24
Alexis Rockman, “Mako Shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)” from Kirk Park Beach (2014) (courtesy of The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
Virginia Opossum12x16
Alexis Rockman, “Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)” from Georgica Pond (2014) (courtesy of The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
Tricolored Heron18x24
Alexis Rockman, “Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor)” from Georgica Pond (2014) (courtesy of The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
Butterhead Lettuce
Alexis Rockman, “Butterhead Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)” from Marilee Foster Farm (2014) (courtesy the artist)
Lion's Mane Jellyfish24x18
Alexis Rockman, “Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata)” from Kirk Park Beach (2014) (courtesy of The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
eastern wild turkey12x16
Alexis Rockman, “Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)” from Georgica Pond (2014) (courtesy of The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
St John's Wort12x9
Alexis Rockman, “St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)” from Marsh House (2014) (courtesy of The Drawing Room, East Hampton)
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Installation view of ‘Alexis Rockman: East End Field Drawings’ at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York (photo by Gary Mamay. courtesy the Parrish Art Museum)

Alexis Rockman: East End Field Drawings continues at the Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, New York) through January 18, 2016.

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