When Alexis Rockman considers the world’s waterways, he sees them as a network — a transport system that has carried all facets of human history.
From language, culture, art, food, architecture and religion to the more nefarious — such as disease, warfare and pollution — each can be traced back to historic ships.
And, in some cases, notorious shipwrecks.
In 1915, there was the torpedo that sank ocean liner Lusitania, which eventually plunged the United States into World War I. In 1622, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon piled high with treasure, met its disastrous fate off the Florida Keys.
An inferno took down the Luxborough Galley, which carried enslaved people, rum and cotton goods between Africa, Jamaica and Great Britain, in 1727, and almost 120 years later, Sir John Franklin abandoned his ship, the HMS Erebus, during an ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage.
And, of course, there was the infamous sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Except in Rockman’s interpretation — a 32-by-40-inch oil on wood — his own cat, Millicent, is watching the disaster from her perch on a crate overflowing with jewelry, bobbing in the water nearby.
“I couldn’t have cared less about Leonardo DiCaprio in that movie, but I really cared about what happened to the pets,” explained Rockman, noting that Millicent was curled up in his lap when he answered the phone. “She was looking out the window at some bird and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect.’
“I wanted to make a painting that was kind of a joke on the tragedy of humanity,” he continued. “Because I was like, ‘Whoop-de-damn-doo,’ right? How about the tragedy of all the biodiversity extinction and shit?”
The paintings and watercolors in Rockman’s newest exhibition, “Shipwrecks” — opening Saturday at Guild Hall in East Hampton — address precisely that, not to mention globalization, colonization and climate change, by exploring their impact on the planet through depictions of both historic and imagined shipwrecks, and their lost cargoes.
“I look back on so many moments in history and it’s so obvious that all of this was brewing and rightfully so,” he said. “There’s so much history in front of us that we don’t see — cultural, biological, ecological. It’s pretty fascinating.”
The first shipwreck in the series, “The Sinking of the Brig Helen,” was meant to be a one-off in 2017, inspired by the life story of naturalist-explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, who lost four years of work — specimens, notebooks and research — in a shipwreck when he was returning to England from Brazil.
Painted from the perspective of a floating specimen at water level, the piece represents the emotional response of such a huge loss — the last of Wallace’s prized collection clung to by a squirrel monkey in the foreground, with the ship sinking behind it.
“My dealer, Richard Edwards, and my wife, Dorothy Spears, said, ‘You know, there’s something about shipwrecks that might be fun to revisit,’” Rockman said. “And me being stubborn and not wanting to listen, I said, ‘You can’t tell me what to do, blah blah blah.’ And then I thought about it and I realized that they’re actually right.”
Relying on historical documents, literature and eyewitness testimonies, Rockman pieced together each shipwreck, their assortments of famous lost treasures, and even human life swept overboard, as well as a compendium of sea monsters in “Maelstrom,” the only fictional painting of the show.
“I never feel like I know what I’m doing; it’s always somewhat of a crisis,” Rockman said of creating this body of work. “But it’s felt the same before — it’s a similar feeling of chaos and not knowing.”
During the pandemic, the lifelong New Yorker uprooted his life to Connecticut — a move that he calls “profound.” These days, he has his own waterway to consider, in the form of a river that flows underneath a covered bridge on his rural property. When asked how he feels about living there, he responded, “Well, I have no clue.”
He laughed to himself, taking a moment to look out at the river. “It’s great, it’s incredibly beautiful,” he added. “My studio’s pretty much finished and I love being up here. Talk to me in February when I’m about to go crazy.”
In the midst of settling in, Rockman carried themes from the COVID-19 epidemic into a new addition to the Guild Hall show: a series of watercolors that relate to the painting, “The Things They Carried,” which depicts living organisms that can transmit infectious pathogens between humans, or from animals to humans, including the langur monkey, the pangolin, the Asian palm civet, the Norway rat and bats.
“That was a direct response to what’s going on in our world,” he said, while paintings such as “Terminus” and “Ablation” directly reference the fragility of the Arctic landscape and the melting of the ice caps.
“Global warming is definitely a part of it, but it’s just one facet in the multi-layered jewel that is what humans have brought to the planet,” Rockman deadpanned. “So could you say that Philistine extinction, when humans arrived in North America 20,000 years ago, 15,000 years ago, it’s about that. It’s about colonialism, cultural extinction, racism, all that good stuff.”
For Rockman, the theme is clear: Globalization is not a recent phenomenon, and the aspirations that drove these historical voyages also generated disasters that, perhaps, serve as harbingers of the current state of world affairs — a reality that deeply impacts Rockman.
“I guess it’s a coping mechanism,” he said of his art. “It’s good to be distracted by just making something, so it’s hard to put a finger on all that stuff. But yeah, I make work about stuff that I care about.”
While human life and emotions are not depicted in this show, animals stand in as witnesses to the fallible characteristics of human nature — as Millicent does every day, mostly ambivalent toward her human family members.
“I showed her a picture, but she couldn’t have cared less,” Rockman said of her cameo in the Titanic painting. “That’s why cats are so great. They just want to murder everything.”