Video: Rockman paints Mother Nature in a foul mood

Chris Bergeron

Anyone ever scorched by a forest fire or lost in a blizzard might wonder how a painter like Alexis Rockman knows what natural calamities feel like.

The rest of us might just hope the coming environmental catastrophe is really as gorgeous as his monumental paintings on display at the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University.

As if seeding clouds with lush pigments, Rockman depicts furious collisions between humans and nature in landscapes of startling power and beauty.

In his first major solo American museum show, "Alexis Rockman: The Weight of Air," he expresses Al Gore's environmental advocacy in the luminous palette of a 21st century J.M.W. Turner.

Fresh from a trip to Antarctica, Rockman is showing 50 large canvases that depict Mother Nature's climactic mood swings with a Technicolor immediacy.

Rose Museum Director Michael Rush described the paintings as "cautionary but never didactic."

Rockman's new work, he said, reveals a looser, more abstract rendering of nature that expresses concerns about global warming without preaching.

"There is a certain anticipation of climatic horrors to come. Alexis is foremost a painter who gives a modern twist on our environmental concerns," he said.

Rockman completed most of the paintings for this show over the last few years, Rush said. The exhibit's organizer, he had staffers install a zigzag-shaped wall in the middle of the large, high-ceilinged gallery. On one side, Rush hung several tall, boldly colored canvases of tornados, water spouts and tropical decay.

"It can be difficult to present paintings of this scale. I like to put people off-kilter by breaking up expected visual patterns," he said.

Standing by the gallery door, Rush said he placed several of Rockman's most imposing scenes so visitors immediately encounter a "'wow' painting" upon entering the exhibit.

By training and circumstance, Rockman might just be the American artist especially prepared to capture environmental cataclysms in a scale that does them justice.

Born in New York in 1962, he grew up near the Museum of Natural History where his mother worked as an archaeologist. A former illustrator for Natural History magazine, he observes the natural world with an illustrator's exactitude heightened by an artist's eye for drama.

Consequently, Rockman's paintings of crumbling canyons, dust devils and glacial meltdowns combine National Geographic realism with an almost abstract rendering of nature at its most elemental.

He covers 6-foot-tall canvases with scenes of natural disasters rendered in lurid elemental colors. He nearly always depicts humans as puny, barely visible figures about to be overwhelmed by hurricanes, tornados or blizzards.

As a visual artist, Rockman represents the other side of the "pathetic fallacy" of Romantic era poets like William Wordsworth who imbued nature with human feelings like sympathy or whimsy.

Part Old Testament prophet, part 21st century meteorologist, Rockman reminds viewers that nature unleashed takes no prisoners. Ask the survivors of Hurricane Katrina or China's Sichuan earthquake.

As if portending the coming apocalypse, a gigantic "Red Hurricane" raises scarlet clouds that blot out the sun. On a smaller scale, a mustard yellow "Dust Devil" roils through a desert construction site while tiny human figures scramble for cover. Like a postcard from Hades, the 2005 painting "Forest Fire" depicts blossoms of orange flames dancing along the limbs of burning trees.

In a sense, Rockman paints "narrative" scenes that nudge viewers into visual stories but not in the usual ways. Rather than using humans to tell his stories, Rockman creates dramatic scenes in which Nature, personified through storm, drought or a "Calving Glacier," explodes, often driving humans to the fringes.

In the starkly beautiful "Old Dirt Road," a barely visible white car either drives toward or away from an enormous mustard-yellow tornado roaring across vacant fields. In "Red Twister," a scarlet vortex of swirling red dust rips through rows of oil rigs that seem to suggest human despoilment of the environment. In a 2007 painting titled "Appalachia," a few rickety houses perch delicately atop the crest of a crumbling cliff as if signaling the inevitable fate of human vanity.

As Rush pointed out, Rockman furiously paints his scenes in "an intense dance of materials, sweat and improvisation" that seem to mirror the natural phenomena he's depicting.

First he photographs landscapes, storms and other disasters or appropriates others' images of similar events. Using Photoshop, he then enhances the colors or manipulates actual scenes to create more dramatic effects.

Working on 300-pound watercolor paper, Rockman paints his scenes with different kinds of brushes, "turkey basters, palette knives, tape knives, eyedroppers, toothbrushes, sponges and rags" to capture nature's primal energies in hues and shades that seem to bubble on his canvases like volcanic lava.

Entering the show, visitors might justifiably feel they've stumbled into the Extreme Weather Channel's broadcast studio without a raincoat.

Even if you stay dry, Rockman's paintings will give you chills.


"Alexis Rockman: The Weight of Air" runs through July 27.

The Rose Art Museum, on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 781-736-3434 or visit the Web site,