Alexis Rockman, “The Sinking of the Brig Helen” (2017), oil on dibond (courtesy David Roth and Heifara Rutgers)

With its roots in global trade, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts is not short on paintings of historic shipwrecks. Artist Alexis Rockman’s contemporary spin on these paintings often relegates the sinking ship to the background, while the creatures affected by the voyages are brought forward to capture our gaze. Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks is on view at PEM through May 31. 

Installing Rockman’s dramatic, large-scale oil paintings in PEM’s historic East India Marine Hall (built in 1825) makes plain how the shadow of potential disaster has always hung over sea voyages. Moving beyond the human impacts, Rockman asks us to consider the threat to polar bears, sea creatures, and the overall health of the environment. Through the lens of the shipwreck, he examines the impact of globalization and asks us to be better stewards of our planet.

Sometimes the artist deemphasizes humans to convey the impact on the environment more broadly. For many of his works, Rockman draws upon imagery from historical paintings, including those in PEM’s collection. A painting by Samuel Walters depicts the failed voyage of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who dedicated four arduous years to biological research in the Amazon rainforest. On his return from Brazil to London in 1852, the ship, the brig Helen, caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic. While the crew gathered essentials onto lifeboats, flames engulfed Wallace’s extensive animal and plant collections, detailed notes, and scientific drawings. The fire consumed thousands of his specimens and several living monkeys, parrots, macaws, and other birds perished.

The catastrophes Rockman alludes to may have receded into history, but his works point to how our increasingly interconnected modern world has generated significant ecological and climate changes. To hear Alexis Rockman discuss his work, tune in to episode 22 of the PEMcast, PEM’s award-winning podcast.

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Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks is organized by Guild Hall, East Hampton, New York, and curated by Andrea Grover. The exhibition continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts) through May 31, 2021.