Exhibition | Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks

A raft with debri floating around it and birds flying around against a red sunset backgroundAs a fundamental form of human expression, art has traditionally represented the world from the perspective of people. With postmodernity’s embrace of multiple subjectivities and environmental crises threatening many of the earth’s species, some artists have broadened their purview to embrace other points of view. One notable adopter of this transition is Alexis Rockman, who for several decades has examined issues at the nexus of natural history, climate change, and biodiversity. His work focuses on the malign effects of human development on the natural world—particularly for those without agency—and conjures possible futures should we continue to ignore them. He states, “I make paintings and watercolors about the history of natural history, but from my very peculiar and particular perspective—which has everything to do with the voices that aren’t often heard from, that aren’t often privileged in the official version of history.”

With his new series, titled Shipwrecks, Rockman reimagines specific events in maritime history from the standpoint of animals and the earth’s climate. Shipwrecks have long symbolized humans’ inability to control the natural world and the extreme encounters with nature that can result. Rockman reenvisions shipwreck narratives to focus less on human drama and more on the broad planetary implications of the forces behind them, including trade, migration, colonization, and globalization. His vivid series of large oil paintings and intimate watercolors points to how an increasingly interconnected world has generated profound ecological change. The artist uses shipwrecks to suggest the ways that hubris and folly have impacted the earth’s equilibrium well beyond particular disasters at sea.

Painting of a seal with its head above the waterline with a sky of pinks, oranges, and purples.Perhaps the most renowned of all shipwreck paintings is The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), Théodore Géricault’s huge canvas portraying of the harrowing events that followed the wreck of the frigate Méduse off the coast of West Africa in 1816. Rockman’s lurid reformulation of Géricault’s iconic painting is set following the rescue of fifteen survivors from a makeshift raft. Pivoting from the human story to its aftermath, the artist asks, “What happened to the raft after the survivors were rescued, and what types of animals would see the place of tragedy as an opportunity?”

Some of the shipwrecks that Rockman explores were directly caused by human, rather than natural, events. The sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German submarine during World War I caused the deaths of 1,198 human passengers as well as uncounted animals. Rockman’s image of the disaster portrays two impassive victims, a cat and a canary, bobbing on flotsam while people in lifeboats attempt to save themselves. Three centuries earlier, in 1622, nine Spanish galleons laden with plunder from the Americas sank during a hurricane near the Florida Keys. The artist shows one of them, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, aflame behind cargo that represents the Columbian Exchange, the system of trade that introduced “exotic” foreign goods to Europe and brought commodities such as livestock to the Western Hemisphere—along with pathogens and systems of racial oppression that decimated Indigenous populations. Rockman evokes both human and nonhuman perspectives in works that represent the realm above and below the waterline. The compositional split in these paintings enables him to consider different species’ engagements with the same environments and events simultaneously. In contrast to the atop-the-waves perspective of Lusitania, the smaller The RMS Lusitania evokes the tragedy—in the appropriately aqueous medium of watercolor—from multiple vantage points, including that of a sea turtle who swims imperturbably below. The same could not be said about the vigilant seal portrayed in Seal Hunters 2 (after Bradford), who warily regards the predatory hunting ship positioned near its head—an outlook Rockman sympathetically invites us to share. In each of these works, Rockman unsettles anthropocentric artistic convention by positing the viewer as mediator between disparate realms.

A sinking ship is in the background with smoke billowing from it with animals floating on debri in the foreground.However much Rockman reveals of life below the waterline, life above crucially impacts our shared future. The migration and trade his paintings explore affect environments in ways both intended and unintended. The Things They Carried, created at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, represents an inadvertent byproduct of globalization and the human appetite for travel and exchange—animal vectors of disease. Set beneath skeletons, which evoke mortality, displaced animals are trapped on isolated remnants of land. In equally foreboding paintings, Rockman depicts the effects of anthropogenic climate change on those who lack the power to escape it, including, in Drifting, a poignantly stalwart dog, floating alone on a melting sea. If we are to save ourselves from our own impact on the natural world, the artist’s work collectively asserts, we must also consider the fates of others. As Rockman states, “Identifying with animals, thinking about how they feel in relationship to humans—they are unwitting and unwilling pawns in this capitalist buzz saw that is shredding the planet: the innocent bystanders of our dashed hopes.”

Karl Kusserow
John Wilmerding Curator of American Art

Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks is organized by Guild Hall of East Hampton, New York, and presented by the Princeton University Art Museum at Art@Bainbridge.

Art@Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum; Barbara and Gerald Essig; and Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin. Additional support is provided by Sueyun and Gene Locks, Class of 1959; the Humanities Council; and The Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP).