“Just a handful of people recognize the ecology of our world, the oceans and so forth, and so these art works called Welcome to the Water Planet were comments on this delicacy of our ecology” –James Rosenquist
James Rosenquist’s Welcome to the Water Planet is a supreme example of the artist’s exceptional late career work, created as part of a significant series that Rosenquist produced during the 1980s and early 1990s. In this large canvas, lusciously depicted and intensely colored tropical flora are interlayered with fragments of human forms (eyes, lips)—the faces of women—that are alternately portrayed in muted colors and in black and white. Fragmentary forms seem to float across the surface of the canvas in sinuous ribbon shapes, seeming, through an optical effect, to emerge and recede across the expanse of the painting, interspersed with the more prominent botanical imagery. Relating his thoughts concerning the Water Planet series, Rosenquist has said, “the division of the ideas in this series of paintings, came from early settlers in America hiding in lakes or streams while a forest fire went by. The imagery that occurred to me seemed like a water nymph hiding in a water lily while some star nova…went by far away” (M. A. Staniszewski, “Interview with James Rosenquist,” Bomb Magazine, Vol. 21, Fall 1987).
The series was likely influenced, in part, by the verdant flora visible from a window of Rosenquist’s studio in Aripeka, Florida, possibly palm fronds, which may have helped to suggest the ribbon-like shapes that unfold across the canvas surface. The art works in this series at one and the same time appreciate the beauty of natural plant forms and also lament the way that Earth’s natural habitats have been despoiled. Concerned about the degradation of our planet’s environment and the tenuous state of life on Earth, the artist states that “just a handful of people recognize the ecology of our world, the oceans and so forth, and so these art works called Welcome to the Water Planet were comments on this delicacy of our ecology” (Interview with the artist, National Gallery of Australia, 2006, http://nga.gov.au/rosenquist/Transcripts.cfm).
In Welcome to the Water Planet, Rosenquist reaches beyond the flat window or two-dimensional pictorial surface. Here, he charges his canvas with a multilayered, three-dimensional vitality. In the Water Planet series Rosenquist uses a crosshatching technique to achieve an effect of fragmenting his compositions into complex picture planes. The technique gives Rosenquist the ability to include varying themes all at once in the same pictorial space, and to organize his themes in lively, dynamic interaction with one another. By fragmenting his compositions in this way he attempts to pursue ideas beyond the conventional depictions and dimensions of flat pictorial space. The multilayered images evoke art historical traditions such as artists’ use of trompe l'oeil to project the illusion of a multidimensional surface, or even artists’ deliberate tearing of a canvas as a way of activating the surface to bring the artwork into the same physical space inhabited by the viewer.
Powerfully evocative, the inclusion of fragments of images has the effect of increasing the visual information present on the canvas and suggesting an experience of a flash of consciousness. The extraordinary and uncanny juxtaposition of images in this work reflects that approach. “(The) revelation of new pictorial space does not attempt a resolution, yet as layer slashes through layer, the build-up of abstraction, combined with human and natural forms adds to (the) potent cacophonous motion, achieving a palpable dynamism of the carnivalesque” (M. Harewood, in W. Hopps and S. Bancroft, James Rosenquist: a Retrospective, New York, 2003, p. 204).
Rosenquist portrays the abundant tropical forms of Welcome to the Water Planet in an intensely vivid, hyper real style that renders the flowers powerfully tangible and immediate, sensuous and seductive. Of the series, the artist remarked that “[it is] called Welcome to the Water Planet and I’ve always thought of aliens visiting us and wondering who we are or what we are and what do we do.” (Interview with the artist, op. cit.). Indeed the botanical imagery Rosenquist depicts in Welcome to the Water Planet seems both familiar and somehow strange, as if viewed from a perspective not entirely our own. In this work and others in the series, Rosenquist explores themes concerning human beings’ domination of the natural environment, and also investigates issues related to the afterlife and to reincarnation. The overlapping, juxtaposing and merging human and plant forms suggest concepts of change, transformation and metamorphosis. Rosenquist has said that “There’s a meaning and an idea and many layers of vision in the same picture. And so at first glimpse, it looks like that (snaps fingers) and then you look a little further and go, ‘Oh there’s something there too.’ There’s more there. Any great masterpiece painting is like that. There’s subliminal values and colors there that hide things and seep out slowly” (M. A. Staniszewski, “Interview with James Rosenquist,” Bomb Magazine, Vol. 21, Fall 1987).