A Man on an Eco-Mission in Mixed Media
“I got stuck on a gondola ride with a climate change denier,” Mr. Guariglia said recently. The stranger clearly had no idea who he was dealing with.
Not only had Mr. Guariglia previously talked his way into joining a NASA scientific mission over Greenland so that he could photograph melting polar ice caps. He also had even created a mobile app called After Ice, which allows users to take a selfie that is overlaid with a watery filter indicating the sea level projected in their geo-tagged location in the 2080s.
So when the man on the gondola said the earth’s warming temperatures were just part of a cycle, Mr. Guariglia recalled, “I took off my jacket and I said, ‘Does this look like a cycle to you?’”
Along his right arm is a tattooed wavy line that is actually a graph charting the average temperature of the earth’s surface over the last 136 years; on his left arm, a similar line reflects 400,000 years of carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere. It shoots upward at the end and curves around his wrist.
Mr. Guariglia’s role as an alarm-ringer on such topics is more subtly evidenced in his coming exhibition, “Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene,” at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., from Sept. 5 to Jan. 7. (The term Anthropocene was coined by the atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen to refer to the current, human-influenced geological epoch.)
Even though the issue is personal for him, the 22 large mixed-media works in the show — all based on photographs by Mr. Guariglia, a former photojournalist — are elegant, abstracted and somewhat mysterious.
It’s hard to tell at first glance what they depict. Stars in the sky? A moonscape? Some images appear from a distance like a three-dimensional sculpture but all are in reality perfectly flat, falling “somewhere between a photograph and a painting,” in Mr. Guariglia’s words.
All the works depict parts of the landscape that have been changed by the presence of humans, from the scars of strip mining to the shifting topography of ice sheets.
“They are beautiful but terrifying,” said Beatrice Galilee, a curator of architecture and design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who follows Mr. Guariglia’s work.
The largest piece in the show, “Jakobshavn I” (2015), is 11 feet by 16 feet and depicts the melting surface of the famous “galloping glacier” in Greenland, so named for the speed of its flow into the ocean. But the image is one ethereal stillness, showing a delicately pockmarked surface of white and gray.
“What’s interesting to me is how civilization can transform things in all different ways,” said Mr. Guariglia, 43, seated in his spacious South Slope, Brooklyn, studio. He seemed very pleased to be discussing his first solo show at a major museum.
Mr. Guariglia has marshaled technology in creative ways. Most significant is the 17½-foot-long printer that dominates the studio. Mr. Guariglia sold his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in order to facilitate its purchase.
Mr. Guariglia calls it “a beast,” and picked this space precisely because the equipment fit there, though just barely. To hoist it inside, he hired the same riggers who install Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures.
The printer, which is only one of a handful of this particular model in the United States, applies an acrylic ink to surfaces in a painterly manner, based on the photographic image that Mr. Guariglia has digitally manipulated. “It allows me to take the vocabulary of photography and expand it,” he said.
The works are all backed either by a type of durable plastic called polystyrene or by an aluminum panel. On top of that go multiple layers of gesso that Mr. Guariglia sands by hand. “I create a traditional painter’s ground,” he said.
To heighten the mottled, Pollock-like splotches of “Landscape Study II, Gold” (2015), he added a layer of gold leaf, a technique he learned over a few weeks from a local gilder.
Mr. Guariglia is part of a fairly recent movement that could be called environmental anxiety art, from the photographer Edward Burtynsky’s wrecked industrial landscapes to Korakrit Arunanondchai’s poetic films that associate recycling with the idea of human reincarnation.
“The cognitive dissonance on these issues is so great, artists like Justin can provide something to hold onto,” said Ms. Galilee of the Met, adding that it was an “urgent task” for artists and curators to address climate change and related topics.
Just having these works at a museum in Florida is a pointed move on the Norton’s part. As the photography curator who organized the show, Tim B. Wride, put it: “If you dig down three feet here, you hit water. So for us, sea level rise does mean something.”
Mr. Wride said that the deeply invested Mr. Guariglia was part of an artistic tradition that goes back at least to the early 20th century, with photographers depicting nature with an eye to its fragility.
“It’s not a mistake that Ansel Adams was a conservationist,” Mr. Wride said.
Mr. Guariglia grew up in Maplewood, N.J., and was a freelance photojournalist based in Asia for 20 years, taking pictures for The New York Times, Time, National Geographic and others. His stints living in Beijing, Taipei and other cities during the region’s economic boom attuned him to environmental concerns.
“I was feeling the physical impacts of years of living in China,” Mr. Guariglia said. “The air pollution was awful. My nose would be running black from the coal in the air.”
About eight years ago, Mr. Guariglia decided he wanted to transition to fine art. “I wanted to start engaging on a deeper level,” he said.
He knew that his photographs would be “raw material,” as Mr. Wride called it, rather than the finished product. Mr. Guariglia obtained his source images in different ways, some of them while he was 40,000 feet up on commercial airplanes.
Then, while surfing the internet, Mr. Guariglia learned about a NASA mission called Operation Ice Bridge, an aerial survey of polar ice caps. He made a cold call to NASA and eventually found the right person to talk to about getting on a flight, offering his photojournalist credentials and samples of his work.
“They said, ‘We’d love to have you, we can get you on a flight in a couple years,’” Mr. Guariglia said. But the conversation also revealed that a plane was leaving on a mission to Greenland in two days. “I said, ‘What if I can get there tomorrow?’” Mr. Guariglia said.
Two days later, he was flying just 1,500 feet above glaciers, lying face down at the foot of the pilot, taking pictures through a small square window in the bottom of the plane. He had to maintain that position for the better part of eight hours.
“It’s very taxing,” Mr. Guariglia said. “But it was thrilling. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had.”
To his mind, going to such lengths will be worth it if the Norton show narrows the gap between the public’s perception and reality, even a little bit.
“That gap has brought us to the great ecological crisis we’re in,” Mr. Guariglia said. “I want to bridge that — between what we know and what we don’t know.”