The Great Lakes Cycle, a suite of giant paintings now on view at MOCA Cleveland, acts as a guide and a warning about what spawns from a lack of awareness — of what it means to be a model citizen living within the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. If we’re not careful, it will devolve into a Jacques Cousteau nightmare.
By drinking from it, we interact with Lake Erie — the shallowest and most diverse ecologically speaking of the Great Lakes — on a daily basis. Except for those lucky few who live within sight, many of us don’t see the lake on a daily basis, or, from a perspective other than speeding by it at 60 mph on the East and 35 mph on the West Shoreway. Many of us still remember our parents’ warning not to put our heads under water while swimming in the lake.
We certainly don’t get the perspective that artist Alexis Rockman affords us in his impressive canvases. The vantage of the artist opens a window to what lies below the surface and, in equal parts, the influence of land (use) and sky.
What results is a shocking tableau.
Rockman’s paintings reflect the power drive that modern man has deftly wielded in exploiting nature. The Great Lakes are a closed system (it takes nearly a century for water to cycle out of Lake Superior; three years for Lake Erie). Everything we put in stays there for a very long time. And we’ve put in a lot of things that don’t belong.
A new generation of Clevelanders is unaware of the lake being declared nearly dead and the Cuyahoga River catching fire thirteen times from 1952 to 1969. Should we let the burning river die, or is it still a potent symbol of the hubris of man trying to control nature? The vantage point from the shore, comparatively, looks pretty good today. But, just below the surface, we are sliding back to the dark times, scientists confirm.
Lake Erie may not be dead, but it is dying from a thousand cuts. In the introduction to The Great Lakes Cycle catalog, seasoned environmental reporter Jeff Alexander writes about how that started in the 19th century with the Erie shipping canal opening up a highway for invasive species like the alewife and sea lamprey, which decimated the native trout population. More recently, Lake Erie has struggled with pollution running off of mega farms, sewers, coal-powered smokestacks, and residential landfills brimming with plastic and packaging. Phosphorous from crop dusting and farm animal waste make harmful algal blooms take shape, sometimes in a fantastic way, like the many tentacled Kraken, in Rockman’s work.
Algae toned, Rockman’s palette and his detailed field guides that accompany each painting, lead to a mash up the fantastic and didactic in landscapes where strange scenes of man made and natural environments coalesce. In this case, we see scenes of a slow-motion disaster unfolding.
The work is laden with allegory: the lakes are an innocent victim and thoughtless profiteers are angry red copper mine tailings, the smoldering land being stripped of green forests, the black, disgorged flesh of a blue pike after a lamprey sucks its organs out, and the mustard-gas pall of a polluted river connected to a city and farm with a pig defecating in it. The illustrative style adds to its shock value.
Speaking to Rockman by phone, I got the sense that he is an unapologetic activist.
“I love nature and natural history so much,” he said. “I realized at a very young age how imperiled everything was.”
As more people and more intense climate-change-induced storms move closer to the lakes, preserving their integrity for all time takes on a greater urgency. Rockman has found a way to raise awareness of the many life sucking monsters that lurk below the surface with the shipwrecks, dead fish, host of zebra mussels, the majestic, fording caribou, diving mergansers, where the multitude of life aquatic is locked in an epic battle over the fate of the Great Lakes.
I’m in agreement with Alexander who concludes:
“Alexis Rockman’s paintings indirectly challenge us to assess how well we know, or think we know, the Great Lakes and the issues confronting them. When I met with him in his studio, Rockman explained his approach to the subject matter: ‘I wanted to recreate the ecological history and human exploitation of the Great Lakes. Do I think my paintings will change anything? No.’
“I disagree. Rockman’s exploration of the natural and unnatural forces at work above and below the surface of the Great Lakes has the power to shift public perceptions and stoke passion for these freshwater seas.”