Murder, Chaos, and Fornication: Dystopian Environmental Futures in Alexis Rockman’s Paintings

This essay is adapted from an assignment in the Colby College course Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience, taught by Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities Christopher Walker. 

Alexis Rockman’s paintings Disney World I and East 82nd Street in the exhibition Occupy Colby: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 2 plunge viewers into a post-apocalyptic world in which nature has regained agency over the planet earth after humankind has fallen. The works are violent and chaotic, suggesting that after the inevitable destruction of industrialized civilization, nature will return in nightmarish full force. The dystopian scenarios depicted in Rockman’s paintings offer a bleak vision of an environmental future in which humans have been removed completely from the system of nature, leaving only crumbling structures behind to be swallowed by clambering overgrowth.

Alexis Rockman, East 82nd Street, 2007. Oil on wood. 80 x 68 in. (203.2 x 172.7 cm). Collection of Timothy A. Pappas, courtesy of Hamilton Arts, Inc. © 2019 Alexis Rockman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

These two paintings reminded me of the film director Werner Herzog’s dire take on nature and wilderness, as presented in many of his films and in on-screen interviews (including this one, recorded during the making of his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo). Herzog posits essentially that if given the opportunity, nature will devour humanity and revert to “murder,” “chaos,” and “fornication.” Rockman’s paintings illustrate a similar sentiment toward the natural environment. East 82nd Street is made up primarily of red tones, painted with thick maroon pigment that drips down the canvas like drying blood. Dark red and black foliage climbs crookedly upward, heavy with strange and unfamiliar blooms. Massive blue beetles fly throughout the composition while noxious-looking gases float suffocatingly upward from the undergrowth. The sky is a yellow and red haze, the entire image seeming to radiate a stifling heat.

There is barely any trace of New York City, which is alluded to in the title. All that remains is a faint outline of a streetlamp choked by vines. The city has been devoured as the once so-called “concrete jungle” is engulfed by an environment that appears almost “prehistorical”—a word Herzog used to describe the Amazon rain forest. This image in particular is reminiscent of Herzog’s concept of blood-hungry nature, which seeks to overtake and destroy whenever given the opportunity. Meanwhile, Rockman’s Disney World I depicts a terrifying image of the devastated theme park, in the forefront of which a boar appears to be attempting to mate with what Rockman has confirmed to be a nutria—illustrating the vulgarity and obscenity of nature: the “fornication” aspect of Herzog’s view.

Alexis Rockman, Disney World I, 2005. Oil on wood. 72 x 84 in. (182.9 x 213.4 cm). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody. © 2019 Alexis Rockman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

I’ve spent a long time considering whether the paintings present any semblance of hope in their two depictions of alternative environmental futures. In the foreground of Disney World I, a singular pure white lily stands out against the smoggy, ashen darkness of the background. In East 82nd Street, a bright purple blossom in full bloom takes up the center of the composition, which is otherwise completely bloodred. Do these two elements suggest that there is hope for nature to return to a purer state? It seems to me, based on Rockman’s visions, that if hope does exist for the future, it is in a world without humankind.