Not Cool: Justin Guariglia Photographs Arctic Meltdown

Justin Brice Guariglia
Artist Justin Brice Guariglia in his Brooklyn studio

Flying aboard a military transport plane to take photographs of Greenland’s glaciers from 40,000 feet, Justin Brice Guariglia aimed to transcend his already-successful career as a photojournalist. Embedded with a NASA scientific project called Operation IceBridge in 2015-16, Guariglia flew seven times for eight hours each trip surveying melting ice sheets, which will affect sea-level rise around the globe. The camera was just his initial tool. “I felt compelled to do something grander, deeper, more engaged,” he said in a recent interview in his Brooklyn studio. “I had to push beyond [landscape photography],” he added, “to get to important subject matter and do something with impact.” His subject matter could hardly be more crucial: global warming and climate change.

“An amalgam of something so permanent and so fragile.”

The result of his quest will be seen in a solo exhibition called “Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene” from Sept. 5, 2017-Jan. 7, 2018 at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Anthropocene” (pronounced an-THROP-uh-seen) is a term scientists are using to characterize our current era, in which human intervention has had undeniable effects on the earth’s surface and atmosphere. Climate change and global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions are indisputable. Nowhere are the effects more dramatic than in the Arctic Ocean, which has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the planet, its sea ice declining 13 percent each decade since 1980. Guariglia (born 1974) saw an ecological crisis looming. He wanted to weaponize art in the battle against human ignorance and apathy.

Justin Guariglia
ÖBÜR I, 2011/2015, an aerial view of the effects of human activity on the Asian landscape. Courtesy of the artist, © 2017

For twenty years Guariglia had been living in Asia and working as a photojournalist for publications like National Geographic, Smithsonian and The New York Times. During that time, he said, “I was bearing witness to exponential transformation, seeing how human beings are impacting the earth.” (His photographs documenting how agriculture and mining have left their imprint on the land will also be shown at the Norton.) He wanted to take an even larger view, to demonstrate massive changes not just to a continent but to our planet.

One problem was that Guariglia felt the avalanche of imagery today has devalued the impact of photographic prints. “We’re drowning in consumable, Instagrammable, very commercial images,” he noted. If he could turn flat images on paper into three-dimensional objects, he hoped they would have a visceral effect, evoking emotion and provoking thought. Committed to this vision, he sold his home to buy a high-tech printer that looks like a tanning bed for a Wilt-Chamberlain-sized giant.

Justin Guariglia
APR 09, 2014, 16:00:50 GMT shows melting ice sheets in Greenland, as installed in the artist’s studio.
Photo: Carol Strickland

In order to restore power to the printed image, Guariglia needed to infuse it with the tactility of relief sculpture and the complexity and metaphorical depth of a fine-art painting. He wanted to arouse curiosity, wonder and awe the way Carlton Watkins’s first pictures of Yosemite or Timothy Sullivan’s photographs of Anasazi cliff dwellings did in the 19th century.

The contemporary aerial photographers whose work Guariglia’s most resembles are Edward Burtynsky and David Maisel, who document landscapes ravaged by human activity. Yet Guariglia goes beyond their full-color prints of abstract beauty. His images are created with a multi-layered plasticine printing process he pioneered. The photographs, composed of many strata — each layer hand-sanded — have depth and texture, seeming almost holographic. They are printed with up to 140 layers of acrylic ink on 25 layers of gesso and attached to substrates like polystyrene or aluminum, giving them literal depth. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation polymerizes the images, fixed in a form that will endure for eons.

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Tim B. Wride, curator of the Norton exhibition, said in a recent interview that Guariglia’s work is more ironic than Burtynsky’s and Maisel’s. (Other differences are that Guariglia’s images are monochromatic and show no trace of humanity.) His major innovation is the degree of material and metaphorical layering. Guariglia doesn’t just document surface appearance, Wride said, but “his ideas are materialized in objects. You can appreciate them from an optical standpoint, and if it moves you to ask questions, that adds another layer.”

Justin Guariglia
JAKOBSHAVN I, 2015-16, acrylic on polystyrene. Courtesy of the artist © 2017

Printing an image like JAKOBSHAVN I (2015-16) of a rapidly melting “galloping glacier” on polystyrene — a petroleum product that lasts thousands of years — makes the resulting work “an amalgam of something so permanent and so fragile,” Wride explained. He added, “There’s a push-pull of permanency of record and impermanency of what’s recorded.” The 110-thousand-year-old coastal glacier Jakobshavn, captured in a 16 x 12-foot, nine-panel work, releases 38 billion tons of ice per year into the ocean. (The whole Greenland ice sheet has lost two hundred billion tons of water each year since 2003.)

Since summer 2012, this oldest glacier in Greenland has retreated more than ten miles a year, three times faster than in the mid-1990s, according to NASA’s satellite pictures. The amount of ice lost may, in fact, be the largest on record, contributing more to sea level rise than any single feature in the Northern Hemisphere.

Guariglia’s conceptualized use of materials makes his works more than typical National Geographic postcard pictures. “It was important to get beyond the aesthetic appeal of images,” Guariglia said. “I wanted to make them effective and impactful, to make people feel and dive into the work.” The result is work that melds elements of painting, photography, print-making and relief sculpture. It becomes something, Guariglia said, “not consumable at first glance where you can’t entirely grasp what you’re seeing.”

Justin Guariglia
ARCTIC OCEAN I, 2013-16, acrylic, carbon black gesso, linen on aluminum panel. Courtesy of the artist.

JAKOBSHAVN I is certainly that, looking like a cratered moonscape on first view. In contrast, ARCTIC OCEAN I (2013/2016) looks like the starry Milky Way in jet-black space but really shows floating bits of ice that have broken off from ice sheets or glaciers. The contrasting predominately white and black images illustrate the vicious cycle that contributes to Arctic meltdown. Since a white surface reflects heat and the dark ocean absorbs it, when ice sheets break off and disperse, the sea becomes even warmer, causing more melting. Since 1979 as carbon dioxide has increased in the atmosphere, more than six hundred thousand miles of winter ice have disappeared (two times the size of Texas). Scientists predict a global sea-level rise of six to eight feet by 2100, which will flood most coastal cities and render many island nations uninhabitable.

Which brings us to our present political moment. The Norton Museum of Art, where the exhibition will be displayed, is in West Palm Beach, just across the intracoastal waterway from Donald Trump’s estate Mar-a-Lago. “For us,” Wride said, “sea-level rise is an immediate issue.” Already streets in southern Florida, including West Palm Beach, are routinely flooded by high tides. Florida is the mainland state most susceptible to the effects of global warming, as sea-level rise threatens 30 percent of its beaches in the next 85 years. Within thirty years, it’s estimated that parts of Mar-a-Lago may be under a foot of water for 210 days each year.

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Trump has called climate change a “hoax.”

Yet in Florida — under two-term Republican governor Rick Scott — an unwritten directive prevents officials from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications. In an Orwellian twist, “clear-sky” street flooding caused by tidal surges is termed “nuisance” flooding.

President Trump, too, seems to consider climate change a negligible nuisance he can dismiss as fake. In a 2012 tweet, he called global warming a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese. He said renewable energy is “just an expensive way of making the tree huggers feel good about themselves.” Perhaps Trump thinks he can build a sea wall to protect the mainland from the onrushing ocean.

Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt, who, as Oklahoma Attorney General, fought the Environmental Protection Agency in favor of the fossil-fuel industry, indicates the president’s heart is not melting with love for the environment. Indeed, his budget proposal would have gutted the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and laid off 25 percent of employees. Even though the last four years have set records in global high temperature averages, Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney has termed government programs to study and adapt to climate change a “waste of your money.” Tell that to the Northern Hemisphere, which, from 1983-2012, suffered the warmest thirty-year period on record in 1400 years.

Justin Guariglia
Notes on bulletin board in Guariglia’s Brooklyn studio: “The Anthropocene is not anthropocentric.”
Photo: Carol Strickland

Since his inauguration, one executive order after another has gutted President Obama’s defense of the environment. Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2015 Clean Power Plan would make a mockery of US compliance with the Paris climate accord by gutting Obama’s regulations to reduce auto emissions and shut down dirty-coal plants. In a cavalier dismissal of evidence-based data, Trump directed federal agencies no longer to collect information on the threat of climate change and to deep-six all reports, rules or insights developed as a result. Trump has replaced what he calls the “war on coal” with another war: on data-driven science, knowledge and non-ideological policy. “Après moi, le déluge!” can be his new campaign slogan. Premature deaths, asthma attacks and carbon pollution, here we come!

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In such a climate of global crisis, Guariglia creates his monumental works, which ideally inspire a frisson of fear (so vast! So cold!), then rational reflection (What are we doing to Mother Earth?). Ironically his panoramas of immense stretches of ice and snow seen from the troposphere are devoid of human presence. Yet it is the presence of human beings on the planet that is inflicting destruction on Nature. Guariglia’s compelling images of vanishing Arctic ice, coupled to Styrofoam derived from oil, will long outlive their subject. The material, you might say, is the message.

Whether art has the power to transform human thought and action, to communicate to people in both red and blue states, is an important question. Justin Brice Guariglia, will continue his NASA mission financed with private funding through 2020. He’s flying high in order to go deep.

Editor’s Note:
If the Norton Museum show is too far in the future, a show of Guariglia’s work, “After Nature,” is currently on view in NYC through May 17, 2017, at TwoThirtyOne Projects, 231 Tenth Ave.