The Art of Climate Change, Stunningly Explored at the Norton

For most of us, climate change is an abstract concern—an accumulation of hopeless data we can’t see, smell or hear, and can only occasionally, and debatably, feel (read: Hurricane Irma). So perhaps it makes sense that an abstract artist would produce the most illuminating visualization of global warming’s impact on Earth’s natural resources.

That artist is innovative photographer Justin Brice Guariglia, who flew over Greenland with a contingent of NASA scientists seven times during 2015 and 2016. The resulting images—of arctic voids and industrial landscapes alike—form the basis for “Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene,” now on display at the Norton Museum. (“Anthropocene” is the proposed era of geologic time in which we currently live, with “anthropo” referring to changes caused by human activity.)

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These photographs, printed on an ultra-archival process Guariglia himself pioneered, are stunningly beautiful objects on its own. Guariglia’s work conjures the terror and intensity of the early abstract expressionist painters more than anything in the traditional photographic realm.

But their collective implication is of a clarion call unheeded, of the last desperate gasps of a dying planet unsentimentally presented for observation by its very killers. It’s just about the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in an art museum.

For this monumental show to settle in, it’s best to take things slow. If you follow this one-room show clockwise, you’ll start with its most frenzied works and progress to its more despairing selections. “Obur I,” one of many photographs taken over industrial mining sites, is an ominous blur of furious topography—created, like so many of these works, by integrating elements of painting. He coats his shots in platinum gold acrylic pigment and mineral-based gesso. These materials are deployed as much for their commentary as their aesthetics; three of his “Landscape Studies” are awash in 22-karat gold leaf, one of the products mined from this mutilated region for our pleasure, resulting in tempestuous images of a world in flux that are also partial diagnoses of its current state.

Another “Landscape Study,” this one pointedly lacquered in pewter leaf, resembles a broken mirror, a straightforward if effective metaphor. His images of the Arctic Ocean and Baffin Bay, however, were taken after the breakage. Once-mighty glaciers have been reduced to glacial dust—specks of white on a dark surface that suggests deep space more than the North Pole. These aren’t icy masses anymore; they’re simply detritus.

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Finally, you arrive at Guariglia’s extreme close-ups of ice sheets, many of them ballooned in size. The four-panel “Akunnaaaq I” looks like the most inhospitable planet in a science-fiction film. But even this is dwarfed by “Jacobshavn I,” depicting a landmass pockmarked and cratered by carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a nine-panel wake-up call too massively scaled to ignore.

At least, that should be the response. The reality is, on the day I visited, most museumgoers breezed in and out of the gallery without reading the wall text. As with the issue of confronting climate change, the urgency is lost on too many of us.

“Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene” runs through Jan. 7 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission is free. Additionally, Guariglia will be discussing his work and the exhibition at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8, at the museum, at no cost. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.