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'The Great Lakes Cycle' is not a massive show, but it’s memorable.

The Great Lakes Cycle, the new Alexis Rockman show at the Haggerty Museum of Art, is compact, but you’ll want to linger.

Rockman is a bit of a muralist and part John James Audubon, editorial cartoonist and surrealist. Within a small square footage, you’ll see three sides of the ecologically minded painter: dreamy, fantastical watercolors about the strangeness and godliness of nature, expansive science-influenced panels about the fragile Great Lakes and a wall of “field drawings” made from dirt and mud.

No one walks into an art museum expecting the paintings to explicitly “say something” and teach a lesson. But do Rockman’s? He certainly walks a line. Inside one of the Great Lakes panels, Forces of Change, the Buffalo River, Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario exchange water and time periods, and a toothy sea beast representing pollution snarls at the water’s bottom like something out of Jules Verne. Rockman calls it the “E. coli Kraken” as it smashes dredging equipment.

He’s being didactic, but the saving grace is that each painting is a dense text. Decoding is a process of going from legend to painting to description and back again and puzzling over the juxtapositions. Small details like insects turn out to be precise species.

The most successful panoramas, like Spheres of Influence, step back a bit from editorializing and remain beguiling in their collage: The plentiful and pestilent spotted cucumber beetle crosses paths with the not-so-plentiful loon, a 1950 plane crash, and historic ships both doomed and mundane.

Watershed, about what it says, looks like something out of a fever dream textbook, and Rockman’s distant cityscape looks like a faded out classic science fiction magazine. While living a bold future, the world beneath humanity turned into very complex sludge.

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The large watercolors began their lives on the floor and moved to tables, where over a few days, they took their final shapes. The over-sized microorganisms with cameos in the Great Lakes series get full-on treatment and pose the question: What’s more puzzling, the microscopic or the ecological?

An institution on the other side of Lake Michigan, the Grands Rapids Art Museum, commissioned the Great Lakes paintings, intended as both a geographical and epoch-spanning collection. Rockman prepared for their creation by traveling with scientists and getting the smell of the land before producing digital sketches and tangible paintings.

He first became interested in drawing plants and animals after seeing Audubon-style nature illustrations in books, but his Field Drawings are of a completely different type. While they look at first like a summer camp craft, in Rockman’s hands, they’re delicate and serendipitous, similar to his watercolors. The dirt (or whatever material used) falls in just the right way to depict creatures either extinct or surviving.


Go See It: The Great Lakes Cycle at the Haggerty Museum; through May 19; Admission is free; special late hours (8 p.m.) every Thursday.

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