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Back to the Future

Are we destined for disaster?

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When we told one of our art-minded friends we were writing about Alexis Rockman, her response may have summed up the difficulty in explaining his work: "So very disturbing. Definitely interesting, but so deeply weird."

We'll attempt to elucidate. Rockman paints the natural world, but not in a traditional charming landscape or still-life-with-flowers-and-fruit sort of way. Instead, Rockman's recent work depicts the interaction between plants and animals in a far more perverse manner -- with an eye to the future, exploring how global consumption can result in a reality not at all like ours.

Rockman's mural Manifest Destiny, which opens this weekend at Grand Arts, debuted at the Brooklyn Museum's recent reopening. As museum director Arnold Lehman writes in the foreword to Rockman's catalog, "We had imagined a celebratory picture showing our hometown as it appears today, on the cusp of a thrilling new chapter in our history." But Manifest Destiny envisions Brooklyn as it might look several thousand years in the future, after global warming.

Brooklyn's landmarks -- the Con Edison power plant and the Brooklyn Bridge, with its gothic arches -- lie in ruins underwater while flora and fauna flourish. Fish and seals swim among the wrecks of freighters and buildings while gulls and pelicans flap their wings overhead. The only thing missing from this beautifully rendered postapocalyptic warning? Humans. Lehman considers the painting "just as breathtaking as its message is chastening," and there's the crux of Rockman's work. If no one showed us what our behavior could cause, why would we consider changing?

"It's important to have a picture of the implications of global warming," Rockman tells the Pitch. "There's an enormous gap in our culture, and no one else was exploring this. I grew up in Manhattan, but I've lived in Peru. I'm aware of the fragility of civilization in a way that we're not entirely conscious of in America."

Although Rockman didn't set out to paint public service announcements, he says he gradually drifted in that direction after learning about natural history, and the niche was available to him. As for heading into the future's uncharted waters, Rockman sees it as an advantage of his chosen medium. "Time travel is unique to painting, and it exploits the strengths that painting has," he says. "[Manifest Destiny] is about time travel as opposed to geographic travel -- in the 19th-century, H.G. Wells, classic-science-fiction sort of way."

Painting Manifest Destiny required more than just patience -- it measures 8 feet by 24 feet. His research began with a climate specialist at NASA. "I needed to know how light and water might change in the future," Rockman says, "then I organized the image accordingly." For accuracy, he consulted about 20 different scientists, including paleontologists, ecologists, archeologists -- and his own mother, an anthropologist who studies New York City.

Working with scientists allows Rockman to paint the most precise image he can, especially when dealing with, say, the sexuality of dinosaurs. As for his reputation as the "science art guy," he corrects us. "I'd rather be the artist science guy."

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