Close Encounters with Falling Realities: Cynthia Camlin’s Divided Earth
Last week, when I heard the news of the West Antarctica’s falling ice sheet, it was hard not to think of the floating, fragmenting masses that comprise Cynthia Camlin’s (NAP #109) new paintings. For over ten years, the artist has been manipulating frozen landscapes into rich imagery that ranges from the luscious, bulbous forms of her watercolor icebergs, to graphic screen prints of broken, frozen shards made flat by their map-like, textural surfaces. Camlin’s latest series, Divided Earth, on view at Seattle’s PUNCH Gallery, reexamines her familiar subjects, which have become increasingly prominent representatives of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns. These new, articulated ice shelves—one of which spans a colossal ten panels—loom directly above and beside their onlookers, the grid structures building an illusion so tangible that, at times, the mounds’ jagged edges feel as if they break into our space on a disturbingly intimate level. I caught up with the artist to find out more about the new works and the way our evolving relationship with climate change has shaped her practice. — Erin Langner, Seattle contributor
Erin Langner: What prompted your initial interest in glaciers and polar ice shelves as subjects for your paintings?
Cynthia Camlin: I was thinking about humans going to extremes. My son was a teenager going to extremes at the time in Austin, Texas. The shootings by two middle schoolers in Arkansas had recently happened. I was also reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and about early Polar explorers. I found myself wanting to depict landscapes at the edges of the world that call to mind stories of extreme effort, self-induced hardship, and the drive towards knowledge or power that becomes unbalanced and obsessive.
I saw these contradictions embodied within Frederick Church’s The Icebergs painting, at the Dallas Museum of Art, which became one influence. The abstraction of geometric, crystallized forms took me away from landscape; though my reference was still the study of geology, I also became interested in studying the earth as a dynamic entity and in the idea of self-organizing matter. When I returned to landscape with a series of large watercolor paintings of icebergs, I used those geometric forms to contrast with loose, organic shapes made by pooling processes. I wanted to show change in one frame: freezing and melting, stability and movement.
EL: Among your new works at PUNCH, I found the title of the Water Fragment series interesting, in that a fragment implies a small portion of a larger object, while there is a heavy, large-scale presence to this painting that spans across ten panels.
CC: Water Fragment seems contradictory, but not when water is a solid, is ice. In all of these pieces, I create structures that seem stabile and solid, with abrupt moments of instability and dislocation. Within the structures, transparent color gives the illusion of depth and fluidity.
Water Fragment, as well as the larger body of work, Divided Earth, is literally a composite, comprised of units that add up to a larger image. The fragmentation does not completely go away when the parts are assembled. The eye compensates for gaps and discontinuities, but the fragments don’t completely match. There is also more than one way to put the parts together.
In one way, the fragmentation is practical and efficient. Modular units can be transported, installed differently in different contexts, can grow in number or be replaced. It is flexible and versatile—an open network.
The fragmentation also implies loss. In series of paintings from 2013 titled Cracked Prospects, I am portraying the landscape as cracked, like a cracked mirror, a broken promise. The idea of nature as a separate realm -- pure, unaffected by us, redemptive -- is broken. Or, it becomes our broken prospect of the future. It can also reference divisive politics that no longer seek common ground. The calving of ice sheets, the fracturing of glaciers, are symbols in my work that are increasingly loaded with meaning.
EL: As images of ice shelves and melting glaciers have become more prominent in the media as symbols of climate change, has that affected your process or their role in your work?
CC: One used to think about an iceberg as a barrier to ships. Its danger—its mass—was hidden underwater. As the downfall of the Titanic, the iceberg was an impediment to human ingenuity and power. In my earlier pieces, icebergs referred to the psychological metaphor, to thoughts or memories that are buried or avoided, to some kind of monstrous unknown. I have associated this meaning with forms of denial—especially with denial of climate change. But, this meaning is changing, too. The icebergs are proliferating; they are the dissolving fragments of melting glaciers. They are symptoms of something larger. The threat of climate change is so large that it makes icebergs seem small, even friendly.
My current work makes the face of an ice shelf crowd the picture plane. We are face to face, dwarfed by an enormous form. The Divided Earth series currently includes nine panels, but my goal is thirty pieces, with pattern, repetition and stability undermined by cracks, slippage and sections that appear to be teetering, verging on collapse.
Divided Earth is on view at PUNCH Gallery in Seattle, WA through May 31. Cynthia Camlin holds the position of Associate Professor of Art at Western Washington University. She received her MFA from the University of Texas, her MA from the University of Virginia and her BA from Duke University. Her work has recently been included in Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art 1775-2012, at the Whatcom Museum, in Bellingham, WA, among other exhibitions. She was nominated for the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant, in 2013, and for the Neddy at Cornish Award in Painting, in 2012.
Erin Langner is a writer and museum professional based in Seattle, WA.