MYSTIC, Conn. — Alexis Rockman’s epic mural “Oceanus,” on view at Mystic Seaport Museum, is monumental in more ways than just its size. In the painting, the artist contends with the scope of humanity’s relationship with, and impact on, the sea.
“We have no idea how many species of marine life have disappeared from the world’s oceans in the past 300 years — the period of time over which the heavy footprints of humans began to sink deeper and deeper into the sea,” writes James T. Carlton, director emeritus of the Coastal & Oceanic Studies Program of Williams College & Mystic Seaport Museum, in the exhibition catalog.
For decades, Rockman has been painting the real and anticipated effects human exploitation of natural resources has on animal life and the environment. Nearly 20 years ago, he painted “Manifest Destiny” at Brooklyn Museum — an apocalyptic scene of Brooklyn swamped by rising waters. In 2018, his “The Great Lakes Cycle” at Grand Rapids Art Museum illustrated the impacts climate change, globalization, and urban sprawl have on those bodies of water. Now, in a perfect match between institution and artist, Mystic Seaport Museum commissioned Rockman to add to their permanent collection.
With a naturalist’s attuned eye and a painter’s expressive hand, the artist paints worlds most of us never think of, deploying motifs that echo through art history. For the 8-by-24-foot “Oceanus,” he researched the museum’s collection of sea-going crafts and models. One is on display: the Thomas W. Lawson, which wrecked off the Cornish coast of the English Channel during a hard gale in December 1907, causing the first large marine oil spill as its cargo, light paraffin oil, emptied into the sea.
That ship appears as one of 22 vessels in “Oceanus,” charting a timeline of human history on the ocean. The first is a muhshoon (spelling varies by tribal language), the dugout canoe used by the Mashantucket Pequot people of Connecticut. Among the last, Rockman paints a container ship and a Cuban refugee raft. In between float Charles Darwin’s brig sloop HMS Beagle, New Bedford’s last whaling bark Wanderer, and an offshore oil rig, among others.
This centuries-long maritime narrative takes place only along the very top of the painting. Rockman’s undersea activity dwarfs the human endeavors. While oceans cover close to three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, their depths contain more than 99 percent of its habitable space, so Rockman is generous in the inches he gives to sailors.
The mural features a detailed key identifying vessels, animals, and industrial tools. A right whale crests the water near the center. The leviathan is dead; sharks circle and feast on its tail and fins. Possibly, the Wanderer’s whaleboat harpooned the creature, or maybe it’s the victim of a ship strike, a common killer these days. The skeleton of another right whale lies below on the ocean floor.
Wind turbines, buoys and cables, fishing refuse, abandoned oil rigs, and plastic pollution have all changed ocean habitats, and humans have an impact even at profound depths. Rockman paints a 19th-century telegraph cable and a contemporary fiber-optic cable snaking across the ocean floor. A Nautilus Minerals deep-sea mining bulk cutter — representing a nascent industry — rolls along the sea floor like a lunar module, approaching giant tube worms thriving in the warmth of a hydrothermic vent.
It’s a breathtaking painting. The ships echo those of luminist maritime painter Fitz Henry Lane. In places along the gunky bottom, Rockman uses thick, exuberant impasto. He paints seaweeds with loose, broad strokes, reflecting water’s fluidity. A ghostly fishing net recalls the loops and tangles of a Brice Marden painting.
Rockman painted “Oceanus” with oil and cold wax (for texture), but there’s no medium better to describe the ocean’s luminous liquidity and frolicking motion than watercolor — as Winslow Homer did when he traveled to the Caribbean. Rockman has painted 10 large watercolors to spotlight phenomena brought on by humankind’s relentless, curious, and hungry interventions in the sea. “Legacy” depicts animals that have gone extinct, such as the Steller’s sea cow, the first marine animal known whose extinction was caused by humans — in this case, as a result of the 18th-century international fur trade. Suspended and fever-red in an amber sea that looks more like hot broth than ocean water, the sea cow is surrounded by a great auk, a Caribbean monk seal, and more lost species.
Rockman puts a lens on animals that travel. In “Tsunami,” he takes a page from Hokusai, depicting creatures catapulted by the great wave caused by Japan’s 2011 Tohoku earthquake; some ended up in Hawaii and along the Pacific coast of North America. “Vectors and Pathways” focuses on crabs and other animals that hitch rides on ships’ hulls and in their ballasts.
Deeply grounded in scientific and historical research but expressed with an artist’s mythic imagination, Rockman’s paintings are sobering yet visually bewitching. As part of Mystic Seaport Museum’s initiative to educate visitors on marine invasive species, it’s enlightening. More than that, “Oceanus” makes a convincing argument that we’re the invasive species.
ALEXIS ROCKMAN: OCEANUS
At Mystic Seaport Museum 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, Conn., into April 2024. 860-572-0711, www.mysticseaport.org/exhibit/oceanus-alexis-rockman/
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.