The main gallery at the RISD museum currently features the large-scale painting "Manifest Destiny" by Alexis Rockman. This emormous piece (8 by 24 feet) occupies an entire wall, and is surrounded by smaller paintings and prints in support of the main piece.
Some of these support works are paintings from the Museum's collection, meant to relate Rockman's style to historical moments. Among them is "Fishin'", a Winslow Homer painting of children fishing, and a beautifully rendered view of a Brazilian forest by Martin Johnson Heade from 1864. Beside these paintings are technical printouts of 3-D images used by Rockman to create his monolithic image, and notes and sketches from the production of the piece. Still more support comes in the form of sci-fi novels left on the viewing bench for perusal.
All of this extraneous material leaves one with the impression that the curators felt that the painting could not stand on its own, and that without relating it to the Museum's collection many would question its value and why it was on view at the RISD Museum. There is a strong sense that the inclusion of pieces by Winslow Homer and others are there to lend credence to the piece, to make it acceptable, and deflect criticism that a single-painting show might somehow be invalid.
They needn't have bothered, however, since the painting more than stands on its own merits. The mammoth size is overwhelming and enveloping, and I was reminded of the first time I stood before Jerome Witkin's Holocaust paintings. Unlike Witkin, however, "Manifest Destiny" does not deconstruct into individual brushstrokes as one gets closer. Instead, it is so richly painted, with so many details, that to approach the painting is to immerse oneself in another layer of meaning and examination.
"Manifest Destiny" shows a cross-section of one moment of a fictional future, in which the oceans have risen and covered New York City. From bottom to top it presents: slices of the sea floor, including a galleon and an underwater tunnel; the undersea life that lives among our ruins; the crumbling towers of the Brooklyn Bridge; and the world above water, covered in new growth even as it crumbles into the sea. The sun is setting behind this scene, and the entire painting is bathed in an orange glow that tints this world an eerie sort of oversaturated monochrome.
Standing before "Manifest Destiny" is time-consuming. While I have been told that the average art-viewer looks at a work for less than 10 seconds, this painting could take hours, and even days to absorb. I spent nearly fifteen minutes on one small corner, immersed in the detail of the sea-life (some of which is real, some imagined). The Museum wall-text hints that there is a single cockroach somewhere in the image, and I can imagine hours of "Where's Waldo?"-ish searching for this little bug.
There are also correlations to "The Picture of Everything" in viewing this piece. In both cases, I find myself saying "Oh, they can't have thought of X" only to find it in the image a moment later. Unlike "The Picture of Everything", however, "Manifest Destiny" is full of direct and meaningful social commentary. It is, in effect, a science-fiction story in painting form, extrapolating our current fears, and our current actions, into a vision of what the result may be. Like a good sci-fi movie, it is beautiful to look at, engaging to experience, and leaves one with something to think about afterward. As debates about Global Warming kick around our political systems and our web blogs, "Manifest Destiny" asks us to look further down the road, beyond our short-sighted self-interest and in-the-moment hatreds, to what may be the results of our inaction. It is a beautiful painting, fascinating and enjoyable on many levels, not the least of which is the depth of the catastrophies it implies.
"Alexis Rockman: Manifest Destiny" is on view June 17 - September 18, 2005 at The RISD Museum.
All images are courtesy of the artist and The RISD Museum.