GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The task that the painter Alexis Rockman took on for his new series of paintings was a wildly ambitious one — impossible, almost. Beginning in 2013, Rockman set out to depict the Great Lakes region and all its complexities, considering the 14,000-year developments, present ecosystems, and threatened futures of these five bodies of water. It’s a study best suited for a scientist (or, rather, a whole team of them), but if attempted by an artist, there are few who can deliver as Rockman can, with precision and flair. Over the last two decades, he has become known for his skilled combination of a journalist’s curiosity with a painter’s boundless vision, planting fact on canvas to produce highly detailed, often Boschian scenes.
The Great Lakes Cycle, the five-painting centerpiece of Rockman’s current exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, is the result of his most involved project yet. Commissioned by the museum, which sits about 40 miles east of Lake Michigan, it involved Rockman traveling around the Great Lakes region to conduct extensive research. (The exhibition, too, will travel to five other institutions, all in cities around the Great Lakes.) He learned about its ecology from individuals in the recreational fishing industry, ichthyologists, anthropologists, and representatives from the Department of Fisheries. He then returned to his New York studio to paint the many environmental issues that plague the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, from toxic algae blooms to invasive sea lamprey. Some of his ideas appear in an adjacent gallery of watercolors, a fantastic grouping that the museum has supplemented with Rockman’s ongoing series of field drawings of flora and fauna.
But the vast majority of his research spreads across five canvases, each measuring six by 12 feet. They do not correspond to individual lakes but rather present narratives on broad themes (fleshed out in discussion with Jill Leonard, a fish biologist at Northern Michigan University). The earliest completed one, “Cascade” (2015), centers on how humans have exploited the region for its wealth of resources over time. While one half shows wildlife, from caribou to a school of cisco, calmly swimming, the other shows a coal burning plant, an iron ore, and the slimy wastes of mines, among other traces of detrimental industries. Look closer, and you’ll spot a fur trappers camp in the background, near a commercial Seine fishing boat.
Most dramatic in the series is easily the painting, “Forces of Change” (2017), which centers on the lower Niagara River as it empties into Lake Eerie. Here, Rockman gathers characters that have transformed the Great Lakes region, from microscopic bacteria to the invasive Tree-of-Heaven. The great disruptor, though, is E. coli, personified as a sharp-toothed, shrieking kraken that bursts from the earth’s core to grab at fish, its reach swift and deadly.
There are at least 25 specific references, mostly to organisms, that one can identify in each painting (“Watershed,” an unsightly glimpse of how cities affect the lakes dating from 2015, has the most, at 50). For those who don’t specialize in ecology, Rockman provides keys for each painting that map out and label every standalone subject he includes.
It’s a didactic display, but one that doesn’t instruct as much as provide scientific context for these paintings. The key only serves to identify subjects, rather than explain every relationship playing out across the canvases, leaving room for your curiosity to grow. Anyhow, I am uncertain if people will spend much time with these diagrams aside from perhaps consulting one or two items that stump them. Rockman’s paintings are so saturated with information that it’s difficult to stop scanning the scenes; having your eyes dance back-and-forth from canvas to key is an equally demanding exercise.
Better to just revel in the enigmatic, bizarre landscapes, which make tangible the myriad unseen forces that have drastically changed the five lakes and the surrounding lands. I’ll admit — as someone who moved to the Midwest just eight months ago — that the image I associate most with the Great Lakes is of five blue shapes, huddled on a map. Rockman, digging deep, reveals complicated networks that are not always seen, and translates statistics into compositions that all at once carry the democratic perspective of a documentary, the drama of a sci-fi thriller, and the grandeur of history painting.
Part of why I consider Rockman’s task impossible is that this “Great Lakes region,” really, is an abstract, un-mappable area. The issues they face are global ones. Rockman’s painting, “Spheres of Influence” (2016), tackles this by examining the impact of migration routes that cross the Great Lakes. The sectioned view of a lake depicts boats and airplanes that have traversed the waters over time, alongside migratory birds and insects that move along flyways. Not one to neglect detail, Rockman also carefully depicts airborne contaminants. Every newcomer leaves its trace, whether it be pollution or invasive species, transported across oceans in the ballast tanks of cargo ships.
Rockman’s paintings are most powerful in how they visualize such relationships, showing how small-scale interactions are linked to major devastation. Reminiscent of dioramas, they present imagined but credible representations of real environments — organisms wouldn’t group all at once in real life as they do here, but how they behave is accurate. The links that Rockman highlights can be surprising. For instance, algae blooms are responsible for avian botulism as toxins move through the food chain, consumed by invasive zebra mussels and round gobies.
Much of The Great Lakes Cycle deals with past and longstanding plagues. More recent ones, as shaped by the development of our cities, are found in “Watershed.” This bucolic scene is tainted by glowing sewer runoff, genetically warped animals, and salmonella — represented by a defecating pig. Is this hyperbolized, grotesque vision of our present really the near future for the Great Lakes? It’s a question made more urgent by Trump’s repeated calls to cut funding for Great Lakes restoration efforts. Rockman doesn’t offer any solutions to enact change, but the scenes we confront are certainly a persuasive call to action.