The skies are seared gray and scuffed by clouds that could be smoke from toxic fires along the horizon. Ripped and graffitied billboards, a railroad bridge, and broken stone arches spouting vines and trees stand in flat water. A junked car rusts under one arch. The whole world seems flooded and abandoned. There are no people as far as the eye can see, but in the foreground, the water is shallow, exposing patches of grass and tire tracks curving through mud.
>> SLIDESHOW: Recent works by Alex Lukas at Steven Zevitas Gallery <<
This untitled scene from a 12-foot-wide drawing in "Alex Lukas: Recent Works" at Steven Zevitas Gallery (450 Harrison Ave, Boston, through June 2) could be a tour-de-force matte background painting from a disaster flick about life after global warming, about the eerie calm at the end of the world.
"They're not intended as clear narratives," says Lukas, who was born in 1981, grew up in Cambridge, studied illustration at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and now resides in Philadelphia. "Saying exactly what's happened isn't as interesting to me as saying this is a depiction of a possible future."
The drowning of New Orleans in 2005 and the release of Al Gore's global warming warning An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 prompted a trend of global warming and flooding as major motifs in contemporary art. Alexis Rockman's 24-foot-long mural Manifest Destiny (2004) depicted a flooded New York. Tavares Strachan's poetic, melancholy 2006 sculpture The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (Arctic Ice Project) was a giant block of Arctic ice preserved in a solar-powered refrigerator.
More recently, concerns about environmental collapse have subsided from art and been supplanted by a fascination with ruins — from abstract paintings coming out of Providence that suggest dilapidated walls, "ruin porn" photography of Detroit (so much so that it's become a cliché, but still fascinating), and post-apocalyptic paintings from Philadelphia that seem haunted by the decaying infrastructure of the City of Brotherly Love. Lukas says he's not trying to evoke Philly or any specific city, but acknowledges that a sense of atrophy "really does kind of surround the city [Philadelphia]. Everything is overgrown. Everything is falling down a little bit." Paralleling this ruins art is photography like Lucas Foglia's A Natural Order project (at Brown University's Bell Gallery in Providence through May 27) and Alec Soth's Broken Manual project, which document people who've fallen off the grid or purposely opted out of mainstream America.
The air of doom is most apparent in pulpy pop culture of the past decade, from 28 Days Later and The Wire to Contagion and The Hunger Games. See also the rise of zombie marches (Boston's annual undead shamble begins at South Station on May 19). It all has a Fall-of-Rome feel — channeling the American subconscious after a decade of the so-called War on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the BP Gulf oil spill, the Great Recession.
Lukas stands out among this ever-more-crowded field because his drawings are so vividly realistic (especially the big panoramas), the kind of imagery that infects your dreams. "For me it's this interesting duality," he tells me, "this implication of violence, of things destroyed, but also this optimistic view that things grow back and life starts again."