During a recent visit to Kunsthaus Miami, Xavier Cortada was putting the finishing touches on his show while ruminating on the "transformative effects" of his visit to the South Pole.
"Antarctica," his solo exhibit, features videos and photographs accompanied by wall text documenting a handful of installations he created as part of a two-week National Science Foundation Antarctica Artists and Writers Program residency he completed this past December and January. But it's his remarkable series of pristinely displayed "ice paintings" that steal the thunder here.
"I conceptualized all the installations in Miami as part of the proposal for my project," Cortada explains of his brainy, eco-based works at the South Pole. "I also packed my canvases, brushes, and paints before the trip, not knowing what to expect, but ended up making these ice paintings of and about Antarctica instead."
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While at McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Cortada worked in a lab alongside biologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, and other researchers studying the continent.
"It was incredible," Cortada says. "A scientist working next to me was researching how single-cell algae would cluster to avoid being eaten, while another was examining the effects of temperature change on life in the Dry Valley, Antarctica's most arid region."
Inspired by his labmates, he asked the researchers to provide him with ice core samples from their investigations and began experimenting with them to create purely abstract, nine-by-twelve-inch works. "In part it was accidental," he says. "The vast solitude and remoteness of the place added to the process."
Those familiar with Cortada's public murals and expressionistic figurative paintings, notable for their lush tropical palette, will be pleasantly knocked back by the radical departure. The subtle, mixed-media works on paper, bleeding cool monochromatic tones, look like watercolors from a distance. On closer inspection the works convey a sense of Antarctica's flowing ice streams, vast ice sheets, imposing mountain regions, and isolated frozen deserts, as if captured from above by a satellite's lens.
They are divided into two series, in which Cortada uses sediment from Antarctica's Dry Valley, ice from the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet, and sea ice from Antarctica's Ross Sea given to him by scientists.
The artist used the drilled ice core samples as brushes, dipping them into acrylic paints before applying them to paper, often letting the ice melt and pool, while the ancient sediment contained within adhered to the surface.
He later titled the works by randomly selecting the names of geographic locations such as bays, glaciers, and coastlines taken from a map of the continent (which in turn are often named after explorers).
Isolated on a wall near the entrance of the gallery, an arrangement of four works from Cortada's "Antarctic Sea Ice Series" seems alchemical in nature. It's of little wonder that the delightfully atmospheric pieces pack such a primeval wallop, given the fact that they are encrusted with thousands of years of history.
In works like porpoise, one can detect how the artist used the ice samples to sponge up rich blue, green, and lavender hues he then applied to the surface in swirls, evoking an ice cap from a bird's-eye view. Scratchy layers of sediment and patches of inky black pools add to its depth and texture.
Across from it, prydz exudes a scabbier vibe, its background soaked in darker tones and caked in grit throughout. Against this sooty wash the artist seems to have placed a chunk of sea ice, slathered in turquoise, leaving it to melt until the piece resembled a frosty Rorschach test.
Other pieces, like bellinghausen and weddell, telegraph how the artist became looser in his approach to experimentation.
The first shows how he used two pieces of ice, dipped in a deep purple tone, placing them inches apart on the paper until the organic-shape meltdowns took on the look of twin iodine spills.
The other piece, brushed across horizontally with multiple washes of icy blue and generously worked over with sediment streaks, shows how the artist lifted color-saturated fragments of ice off the paper, allowing them to drip onto the surface like runny popsicles. A mood-ringlike splotch in this work is playfully surrounded by drip splatters that look like a band of amoebas.
Unfortunately the photographs documenting the meatier work Cortada executed during his visit to the South Pole nearly get lost in the shuffle. Exhibited on a wall at the rear of the gallery, they depict the projects that earned him his visit to Antarctica, complemented by elaborate wall texts describing their process.
This past January 4, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the South Pole station, Cortada created the Markers, planting 51 different colored flags along a 500-meter stretch of the moving ice sheet covering the Pole. He placed each flag ten meters apart, approximating the location where the shifting geographic South Pole stood during each of the past 50 years. Each of the flags also displays the coordinates of an event Cortada believes "moved the world forward": Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth in 1957; the Civil Rights march on Washington in 1963; the United Nations' First World Conference on Women in 1975; the invention of Prozac in 1987; the end of apartheid in South Africa and Mandela's election in 1994; and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003.
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In Longitudinal Installation the artist placed twelve identical pairs of black leather shoes, purchased from a Liberty City wholesale outlet, in a circle around the South Pole. The text accompanying the photo notes that the shoes served as a proxy for a person affected by global climate changes in the world above, and were placed inches apart along the corresponding longitudes where those individuals live.
For The 150,000-Year Journey, Cortada embedded a replica of a mangrove seedling in the three-kilometer-thick glacial ice sheet blanketing the Pole. The Cuban-American artist has adopted the mangrove seedling as a metaphor to address the immigrant journey what he refers to as "the displacement, the solitude, the struggle to simply integrate oneself into society." As the seedling begins it 150,000-year trek in the direction of the Weddell Sea, 1400 kilometers away, Cortada questions how humanity and the earth might evolve in the time it will theoretically take for the art piece's completion.
The short video piece captures Cortada in the process of planting his flags, and the harsh subzero conditions he endured. All of his installations were created on the same day, documented, then taken down.