Nightmares on F Street, or, Archival horrors

So, this week I’m idling on location in not-so-sunny, slightly snowy, Washington D.C. The lady I’m vacationing with is out taking the bar exam for some reason and I’m tucked in my cushy One Washington Circle Hotel bed writing to you. Late yesterday afternoon we decided to do as the D.C. tourists do and get ourselves to a museum.

But, bad news, everyone! Apparently museum knowledge is only up for grabs until 5 pm, so the more popular Smithsonian sights were out of the question. This was less of a letdown for me as I’ve visited said sights before only to realize that I harbor strange museum phobias. The epic architectural spaces designed to mimic historical scale and make one teeny-tiny in comparison to the vastness of the archive, well, this fills me with sublime terror. Heavy machinery and/or the plaster likenesses of avian creatures hanging by slim wire from the ceiling—along with the possibility of being crushed by said artifacts—presents another creeping form of agoraphobia that makes me feel like I’m going to tip over. Lastly, giant toothy-mawed skeletal formations and gigantor replicas of hulking beasts of the past kind of make me want to pee myself. Much like the first fear, these replica displays suggest a universal and temporal hugeness that makes my brain hurt. And much like my second fear, I can also imagine scenarios in which the stuffed monster or cage of bones will fall over just so, encasing me in the mouth of mastasaurus terrorificus and, thusly, painfully I die.

So, all that to say we went to the National Portrait Gallery instead. (They close at 7.) And, score one for the phobe! Portraits do not scare me.

The gallery is lovely, especially its upper levels with its colorful mosaic floors and decoratively corniced hallways. I also preferred the upstairs spaces because they held the more contemporary artwork. Though some of the early daguerreotype prints were hauntingly impressive, I can only see so many Civil-War-era rich white men captured on film or canvas. The third floor was my contemporary postmodern bread and butter, replete with huge pop-artsy prints depicting bacon. This is also where I found my favorite exhibition; I was completely taken by the art of Alexis Rockman.

Excited by the name “Alexis,” I was pleased to see what I assumed was a woman’s work. But, Rockman is actually a man. This really only upsets me because I was painfully aware of the overwhelmingly male presence of both the artists and subjects of the portraits and I was excited to see a whole set of rooms devoted to this “Alexis.” Though I was disappointed, I bucked up and continued onward—I wasn’t going to let a little penis ruin my day. And, bottom line, the dude is an amazing painter.

Evolution

Evolution, 1992, oil on wood, 96 x 288 in.

Rockman’s canvases are large and wide depicting various landscapes with a painterly romantic touch reminiscent of the Hudson River School. The dizzying and even horrific sublime feelings I described above, the affect born of “scary” museum displays, are captured in these portraits with uncanny clarity. Each painting is incredibly detailed in its depiction of past, present and future natural worlds. In one landscape you might see those hideous primeval creatures of the deep gliding though the murky water, something akin to the Loch Ness monster, while just above little reptiles squish their way out of the muck and onto dryer land. Skeletal fish, gelatinous figures, terrible dinosaur-like birds of prey populate an impossible (or is it a soon-to-come and totally possible?) habitat.

In Rockman’s worlds nature is both abject and beautiful. Weather is Herculean, mythically huge, yet godless. Pollution and man-made horrors create a contemporary hell. In a number of paintings, horny pigs dot the canvas humping chickens, beavers, or anything they can get their hooves on. The artist forces us to reckon with the ugliness of our scientific splicings and the grandiose downfall of the planet to pollution. He makes us bear witness to encyclopedic depictions of primordial soup not only as our beginning, but also as a future that we bring about ourselves. A future in which we no longer exist.

Sea World

Sea World, 2001-04, oil & acrylic on wood panel, 96 x 120 in.

Immensely complex, amoebic formations may gestate in the eye of a frog, while that frog performs its role in a much larger ecosystem—one equally devoted to life and death, beautiful birth and disgusting decay. Teams of insects, arachnids, rats and an endless array of carrion (real remains lacquered into certain pieces) take center stage in Rockman’s work. No mustachioed generals here. He champions the frightening beauty of the shadowy figures that live beneath our feet, or buzzingly tangle in our hair. He pushes us to see the things that dangle and dance at the edges of our being. He paints them, he glorifies them and he makes them visible, powerful. We see ourselves through the cockroach, we recognize ourselves and our ancestry in the monsters of the past and begin to reckon with the monsters that we are and are becoming.

Another museum experience, again, scarily good.

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