Review: Dana Friis-Hansen, editor, Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle

[1] At Field Elementary School in South Minneapolis, I learned and memorized the names of all of the Great Lakes. I knew from maps that one of the Great Lakes bordered Minnesota, and while my father, uncles and grandfather took me fishing all over Minnesota and western Wisconsin, I didn’t see Lake Superior until I was around 10 years old. I can still remember the awe from that first view of the Lake. On another trip to Lake Superior’s North Shore, I was also in awe of the tremendous flow of taconite tailings being pumped into the lake. Even at a young age, I knew something was wrong with the brown slurry of iron ore mining byproducts being pumped to create a huge waterfall pouring into the lake. Starting in 1969, the Sierra Club and others fought in the courts and in local and federal governments to stop pumping tailings to Lake Superior, finally succeeding in 1982. As a child, I knew enough about the world at that time, to recognize there were stewards of the earth who were working to change the world. Alexis Rockman certainly will be remembered as a steward of the Great Lakes.

[2] Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle is the title of a new body of work by artist Alexis Rockman exploring the story of the Great Lakes, an ecologically fragile environment of global significance and breathtaking beauty. As an artist, and forever student of art, I am in awe of the work created by Alexis Rockman, whose paintings match the scale and breadth of the Great Lakes. Rockman’s work, artistic process and values are described and chronicled in Dana Friis-Hansen’s book, Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle, named after the exhibition that opened at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2018 and has traveled to multiple cities since.  It is hard for me to review the book without referencing the actual artworks that give the book its context, so I’ll be going back and forth between describing the exhibition and the book that brings it to life for those who can’t see it in person.

[3] Dana Friis-Hansen has written and edited a book that first provides a physical and historical description of the Great Lakes with Jeff Alexander’s chapter. Friis-Hansen then gives us a historic timeline of American painters, showing how Rockman’s work fits into that timeline and providing a description of the paintings. The book closes with a chapter that documents Rockman’s creative process.

[4] In his chapter, The Great Lakes in the 21st Century: Profound Beauty and Extreme Change in the World’s Largest Freshwater Ecosystem, Jeff Alexander weaves a portrait of the Great Lakes as a system integrated into the larger world’s environment. Alexander could easily have fallen victim to gathering and reciting nothing but superlatives — Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake by volume, the largest assemblage of freshwater dunes (around Lake Michigan, Huron and Ontario) and hosts the largest freshwater island (Manitoulin), but instead he uses those superlatives to tell the story of this large ecosystem within which 34 million people live. In Alexander’s writing, the Great Lakes entity/system is given a personality with its own rights to survive and thrive without pollution from runoff and wastewater, without invasive species and without other human impairments.

[5] Alexander reviews the history of our intrusions with invasives, focusing primarily on aquatic species introduced by human actions. Entering the Great Lakes system through canals, alewifes arrived from the Atlantic and reproduced in numbers to compete with native species for food and also clogged beaches with massive die offs. The zebra and quagga mussels threaten native mussel populations and change the chemistry of lake waters that support the chain of life of invertebrates and vertebrates. From those small creatures to the larger Sea Lamprey, that devastated the native Lake Trout population, Alexander gives a clear description of the invasive species threat to the Great Lakes.

[6] From the invasives to the suggestion of water being routed from the Great Lakes watershed to other parts of the United States, Alexander describes the multiple threats to the Great Lakes. He does this to give us an understanding of the vast amount of information that Alexis Rockman used to create The Great Lakes Cycle. To create the series of large-scale paintings and works on paper it is evident that Rockman holds the information in Alexander’s chapter both at hand and internalized in head and body. Rockman not only depicts the threats and beauty of the Great Lakes, their timelines and the consequences of these threats, but literally paints a holistic story and narrative of the watershed.

[7] Dana Friis-Hansen writes a visual biography of Alexis Rockman that references the many points of information and inspiration for The Great Lakes Cycle. Friis-Hansen describes how the contemporary inspiration of Robert Smithson’s use of color field theory impacted Rockman, and then explains the role and impact of the Hudson River School of painters on his work. In particular, he points to the 19th century American painters Thomas Cole and Frederick Church. In creating the first American painting school, Cole and Church were capturing the great American landscape before it disappeared, much like Rockman is attempting to do with the Great Lakes, showing us their current condition and state of health. Friis-Hansen recounts the history of artists who told the story of the American landscape through spectacle. He describes how Church’s large-scale canvases “Great Pictures” traveled the country as commercial entertainment.  Rockman’s five paintings featured in the book and the exhibition could be considered “Great Paintings” in both scale and purpose.

[8] The scale of the five featured paintings in Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle are influenced not only by the Hudson River School of paintings, but also by dioramas, specifically those in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. As a child, Rockman would spend hours marveling at the “immersive theatrical experience” that combined taxidermy, lighting and painting.  Rockman’s work similarly pulls us into a world that he creates in The Great Lakes Cycle.

[9] Rockman also employs some of the same information-gathering techniques as his predecessors. An explorer/artist, he develops “each painting through a process of investigation, integration and staging”.  Reflecting significant research, each painting integrates history, biology, anthropology and politics.

[10] The exhibition was built around five 6’ x 12’ long paintings. The paintings are epic in scale, beauty and inspiration. The book and the exhibition contain a helpful key to all of the elements in each painting. The paintings’ narratives play with time and space by depicting elements of the ice age along with contemporary mining techniques and showing the canoes of the indigenous people of the Great Lakes along with the large ore carrier ships. Each painting has a different theme and title and is like a movie or a novel that relates a tale of beauty, natural history, politics, catastrophe, and in some way a call to action. It is hard to find adjectives to describe the Great Lakes and Rockman’s work.  Words like “immense,” “grand,” “monumental,” and the contemporary term “blockbuster” come to mind, but none quite captures Rockman’s artwork. The word for me that comes closest is “epic”. Like a long format epic poem dedicated to a single theme, Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle is a paean or psalm to the Great Lakes. Inside of each epic painting are sets of metaphors, proverbs and parables.

[11] As an artist myself, I am always intrigued with understanding the philosophic foundation for an artist’s work, but it is the how to, the DIY that always jumps ahead of the philosophy. This is Who I Am, the chapter by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, is the “how did he do it” section on Alexis Rockman. As Dana Friis-Hansen described in his earlier chapter, Alexis Rockman follows a process of “investigation, integration and staging”. What Nichols Goodeve does is expose that process by making the invisible, visible. We are shown in detail the extensive digital filing that Rockman uses to keep reference materials. Goodeve reveals that Rockman uses these vast digital files as his sketchbook, using digital tools to sketch out and compose his paintings. Nichols Goodeve chronicles Rockman painting Forces of Change, one of the five epic artworks in The Great Lakes Cycle over a monthlong set of visits to his studio. Goodeve aptly describes and compares this creative process to the evolutionary processes of many of Rockman’s subjects.

[12] Alexis Rockman’s paintings and works on paper together literally paint a portrait of the Great Lakes as a singular system. I would add that his work goes way beyond that to urge us to think about the Great Lakes Ecosystem as an entity, a living thing with its own history and its own set of conditions and rights. Dana Friis-Hansen places Rockman in the grand American tradition and timeline of the artist/explorers who envisioned themselves as correspondents that chronicled the current condition of our waters and landscapes. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve in documenting how Alexis Rockman creates his epic work, describes the passion and discipline required to paint his powerful narratives. All together Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle, is not just a document of five paintings and an assorted group of works of art on paper, but a rich resource to the life and hopefully not, death of the Great Lakes. Alexis Rockman’s passion and discipline spring from a deep well of love for the environment and the Great Lakes in particular.

[13] This book can be experienced as a call to action for all of us, because our “friend” is ill. One of the strong images for me in Jeff Alexander’s chapter is his diagnosis of the Great Lakes. He states that Lake Superior has a fever, Lake Erie has COPD, Lakes Michigan and Huron are anemic and Lake Ontario has PTSD. Even as a child I knew what was wrong and right for Lake Superior. Will we extend our love, passion and prayers to help save our sick friend?

Seitu Jones

Seitu Jones is an award-winning multi-disciplinary visual artist who has created over 30 large-scale public works across the country.