Alexis Rockman should be putting the finishing touches on the giant mosquito that hovers in the last canvas of his first show in New York in four years. Instead, he’s taking the No. 2 train to the Bronx Zoo for what you might call a test of his knowledge of the wild kingdom, which is featured in his sometimes surreal, sometimes sexually perverse, but always exacting paintings.
Standing on the platform, he looks like an overeager sophomore in Tevas and a tank top and he sounds even more like a motormouthed member of the AV squad. “The first okapi was found in 1901,” says Rockman, who, one quickly learns, works his idiot-savant-like knowledge of obscure creatures and their fun facts into most of his casual conversations. “In Central Africa. The ex-Belgian Congo. Well, the Republic of Congo now. They’re the poster child for cryptozoology, really.” Pausing just long enough to take a sip of his venti-size iced coffee, he answers the obvious question before it can be asked: “I’m interested in science stuff so I can give myself the credibility to paint cool shit.”
A veteran of the prep-school crosstown sprint from 84th and East End to York Prep (“I had a little discipline problem,” he whispers. “It was the only school that would accept me”), Rockman is so New York he doesn’t even have a driver’s license. But his mother, Diana Wall, a prominent archaeologist whose work once took them to Peru for a year, kept their house populated with countless newts, cats, and boa constrictors, which might have something to do with why his paintings look like a bug-loving Boy Scout’s dream. Every insect or leaf is painstakingly researched and executed with old-master deftness. “He’ll talk to me about animals using their Latin names,” says Michael Crewdson, a science writer for the New York Times. ” ‘They just found another Architeuthis!’ ” For The Ecotourist, a self-portrait of his own corpse decomposing in a jungle that now hangs in The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson’s living room, he spent hours with a forensic pathologist, grilling him for information on the perfect pallor and infesting bugs. “There’s a diagram in the upper left telling you what everything is,” he says excitedly.
His new show, titled “Expedition,” which opens at Gorney Bravin + Lee Gallery next week, does not stray far from his “cool shit” theme. It’s based on Rockman’s recent travels to South America, fishing for piranhas alongside artists Mark Dion and Peter Cole, and photographer Bob Braine. Six years ago, he made his first jungle trip with the group. “Until he picked up a paintbrush, he was utterly miserable,” says Dion. “I would go out and find something really remarkable like a six-inch water bug, and Alexis would spend three days drawing it.”
Given the speed at which the art world’s darlings are created, it has been a veritable lifetime since Rockman’s last solo opening. He was Ross Bleckner’s assistant in the early eighties, but now even his own former assistant, Damian Loeb, has become bigger – in buzz, anyway – than he is. “Every artist wants to kill the generation before them,” Rockman says with a shrug.
While Rockman doesn’t drink or smoke or date Sykes sisters (his wife of six years, Jill Rowe, is a restaurateur), he is, it should be noted, like Loeb, so classically handsome that when Coach shot him for a “real people” ad campaign, the film supposedly had to be scrapped because he out-modeled the models. Off-camera, he navigates the Chelsea party circuit as well as any young British import. A relentless massager of the media, he has lost no real estate in the party pages, show or no show.
But what Rockman really wants is a painting at moma. And he’s well aware that this opening, his eleventh in New York, is critical. “The art world has a sort of schizophrenic relationship with Alexis Rockman’s work because of its approachability,” confesses his dealer, Jay Gorney. “Damien Hirst included him in his show at the Serpentine gallery in London. However, certain people in the art world won’t give Alexis an inch,” he says. “But now people are focusing on figurative painting in a way that they haven’t for a while. People are really looking at John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton. It’s a good moment for Alexis.”
“I tried to kick some fucking ass,” says Rockman. “I guess I’m just wondering whether anyone gives a shit.” Rockman, for one, gives a shit about everything. According to his fellow travelers, while in Guyana he pressed on with his physical-fitness regimen of sit-ups and push-ups, even basketball, despite 100-degree heat or torrential rain. While prepping for his current show, in a considerable display of multi-tasking, he also took on The Farm – a public artwork commissioned by Creative Time on the bioengineering of plant and animal life – and even a TV series for the Discovery Channel with geologist Peter Ward. He wasn’t always this focused: His first year and a half at Rhode Island School of Design studying film culminated in a nervous breakdown of the twentysomething variety. “That’s when I started painting,” he says. “I needed a project.” While at the School of Visual Arts, he landed the gig as Bleckner’s assistant. “I remember feeling like I was a loser because he was a loser,” Rockman says, laughing. “He was showing at Mary Boone only because Julian Schnabel threatened to leave her if she didn’t show him.” But Bleckner gave him a key direction: “He told me to be attracted to images that make you uncomfortable. Putting myself in paintings” – Rockman is in every one of the “Expedition” series – “makes me uncomfortable. They’re triumphant but humiliating.” Indeed, Tropical Hazards, a rendering of Rockman shirtless with a superimposed diagram of a tiny parasitic catfish – a candiru – swimming up his urethra, comes to mind. “I’m like, the more information, the more perverted,” Rockman explains. “That’s why I’m interested in every hair on a tick’s leg, every blade of grass. That makes me excited.”
Reaching the zoo, Rockman knows all the shortcuts. He gets a tour of the research laboratory, and when Robert Cook and Billy Karesh, the zoo’s top veterinarians, show him jars containing the remains of snow leopards, every organ of the animal cut up into beige-colored chunks suspended in formalin, Rockman is blissful. “There’s his brain!” he says, getting his face so close to a jar that it would make even the most hardened ER interns lose their lunch.
At the World of Reptiles, he points to a clearly agitated potential Prada shoe. “I assume that’s an emerald tree boa up there,” he asks, “even though it says viper?” Karesh has to admit he’s right.