Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman: Journey to Nature’s Underworld

Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman: Journey to Nature’s Underworld will be the first two-person exhibition of these closely allied artists, offering a compelling tour through their celebrated careers and into the shadowy depths of the threatened natural world.

The first two-person exhibition of these celebrated artists, Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman: Journey to Nature’s Underworld will explore their shared allegiances and sustaining friendship. While each has achieved international prominence for his distinctive practice, their creative and intellectual trajectories have evolved in tandem and often intersected. Over the past three decades, they have together taken tropical expeditions; published several dialogues; and co-edited the 1996 book Concrete Jungle, on unsung urban ecosystems. Each has committedly probed our strained relationship with the environment and reigning ideologies of nature. Uniting some twenty-five sculptures and paintings by both artists, along with selected works on paper and a major new collaborative piece, this exhibition will offer a compelling journey through these artists’ diverse careers and into the shadowy depths of the threatened natural world.

Although differing in chosen media and exercising singular stylistic voices, Dion and Rockman engage a number of like themes and strategies throughout their work, including scientific methodologies and models, intensive research and fieldwork, allegory and dark humor, and popular culture tropes. Foremost is their shared enlistment of display methods from natural history and art museums, arenas of alleged authority and objectivity that their works slyly subvert. While Dion’s preferred museological modes are 3-D tableaux and specimen cabinets, Rockman revels in large-scale diorama paintings, densely populated and replete with didactic keys.

The concept of “underworld” in the exhibition’s title encompasses several germane associations, including the mythic abode of the dead, the Earth’s subsurface, and elements of criminality or vice. Within the context of Dion’s and Rockman’s oeuvres, the notion also incorporates unconscious beliefs about nature, invisible micro and macro dimensions, and denial of our culture’s harmful course. In the past thirty years, during which the environmental crisis has escalated, the artists have expressed increasing pessimism and melancholy about our ecological fate. This gloom has not proved stifling, however, and Dion and Rockman continue to hone creative tactics for staging both the wonder and horror of nature’s condition.

The exhibition will beget a voyage of discovery through various pressing subjects, with the artists’ works serving as enticing guides. Beginning with a section evoking the fieldwork of pioneering naturalists and explorers, visitors will encounter field-station tableaux by Dion alongside Rockman’s paintings of fauna and dramatic terrains, often with cross-sectioned views. Ensuing works will address such themes as invasive and endangered species, beleaguered aquatic environments, anthropogenic landscapes, and future scenarios evincing effects of climate change and waning biodiversity. An exhibition highlight will be the debut of a grand sculptural diorama, titled American Landscape, made especially for the tour and marking an unprecedented collaboration between Dion and Rockman. This zoological group portrait, set on a golf course, will feature a cast of scrappy species that, according to the artists, successfully “exploit niches and opportunities generated by a human-transformed landscape” representing “the future global ecosystem.” In addition to a selection of drawings and prints by both artists, the exhibition will culminate in a Chamber of Wonders section, conceived as a flexible cabinet of curiosities for presenting museums to participate, along with the artists, in the curation of groupings that inspire both awe and concern about the natural world.



Limited Availability in 2022 and 2023


For information contact Suzanne Ramljak, at sramljak@amfedarts.org or 212.988-7700, ext. 244.


The exhibition catalogue will convene a number of vital thinkers from diverse fields writing on the current plight of nature. The publication will also include an illustrated chronology of the two artists’ careers, situated within an expansive timeline marking the Earth’s deep geological history and projected future events.


Suzanne Ramljak, an art historian and writer, is a curator at the American Federation of Arts, a position she has held intermittently since 1995. From 2001 until 2018, she served as editor of Metalsmith magazine, and was formerly editor of Sculpture magazine. Ramljak has worked in the curatorial departments of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Among the exhibitions she has independently curated are, Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art and Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment (both 2018), Case Studies: Art in a Valise (2006), Elie Nadelman: Classical Folk (2001), Romancing the Brain (1999), and Seductive Matter (1995).


Organized by the American Federation of Arts.