Justin Guariglia Breaks Ground the First Artist in a NASA Mission

Julia Halperin

Justin Guariglia with works from his show “After Nature” at 231 Projects in Chelsea. Photography by Landon Nordeman.

Most artists are committed to their craft. But few have gone as far as Justin Guariglia. “I sold my house to buy a printer,” the 42-year-old artist tells me on a recent visit to his studio in Brooklyn. The printer in question— a behemoth that stretches across the studio—sits a few feet away from the couch where we chat. Books and papers cover nearly every flat surface in the space; quotes from Al Gore and Albert Einstein are taped to the wall.

Guariglia left behind a successful career as a photojournalist and moved halfway across the world two years ago to pursue fine art full-time in New York. He had no formal training, but he had a subject in mind. He wanted to make art about our irreversible impact on the planet. “I couldn’t imagine anything else that would be worth investing all of my time and energy into,” Guariglia says. A tattoo that charts the rising temperature of the earth extends up his left arm, from his wrist to his shoulder.

Guariglia has a front row seat to the devastation humans have inflicted on the landscape: he is the first artist ever to be embedded in a NASA mission. In the fall, he will fly over Greenland with NASA scientists as part of the Oceans Melting Greenland project (also known, aptly, as OMG). As the scientists track Greenland’s shrinking ice sheets with sensors and radars, Guariglia will collect images and data to use as raw material.

During his 20 years as a correspondent in Asia for the Smithsonian Magazine, the National Geographic Society and The New York Times, Guariglia saw population growth and the explosion of industry transform the landscape. “I’d travel somewhere and come back six months later and everything had changed,” he says. But he realized that unless he uprooted his life and left journalism behind, his images would always end up in the recycling bin. “I didn’t want to make work that people forgot about—I wanted to do something different,” he explains.

Guariglia began taking aerial photographs of Greenland’s polar ice around eight years ago on commercial flights from New York to Hong Kong. They form the foundation of his latest body of work, which was recently shown at 231 Projects in Chelsea. The show, which closed on April 30, Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, was Guargilia’s “contribution to the 100 Days of Resistance” movement organized by activists across the country.

Entering Guariglia’s studio, the first thing I notice is the scale of his works. The largest, 16 by 12 feet, was recently acquired by the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, where he will have a show opening in September. They are so big that it is difficult to tell what they show: some look like constellations in a night sky, while others could easily be mistaken for abstract paintings by artist Lucien Smith. In reality, each is based on a real landscape that has been threatened by human intervention. The constellations are, in fact, shrinking sea ice; the abstract forms are vast expanses of land that have been carved up by industrial farming.

Justin Brice Gauriglia

One NASA scientist believes the institution’s collaboration with Guariglia could change the way we think about climate change. “We’re radically reshaping the planet,” says Joshua Willis, who runs the OMG project. “That simple fact is hard to stomach for a lot of people. Even if you understand it in an intellectual way, it’s hard to visualize. Justin’s work has the potential to help people grasp what’s going on.”

Willis also hopes Guariglia will be able to help scientists better visualize the topography of Greenland’s ocean floor—an important step in determining how quickly the glaciers will shrink and sea level will rise. NASA officially disbanded its artist residency in 2005 after Congress cut funding for the program, but Willis is securing clearance to allow Guariglia to observe the scientists in the air as well as in the lab. (Guariglia has gone into debt to fund the project himself, though he is now applying for grants and sponsorships. “I used my life savings to do this—literally,” he says.)

To print the images, Guariglia uses a technique he developed and dubbed “Plasticine printing.” He programs a highly configurable UV printer—the one he sold his house to afford—to put down layers of acrylic ink on durable surfaces, like aluminum and polystyrene insulation panels. While traditional photographs can disintegrate over time, Guariglia’s images are designed to last forever. He considers the works paintings. “Think of the printer as my paint brush,” he says.

The layers of acrylic are designed to echo the strata (layers of earth) that make up the geological record, a subject of fascination for the artist. “I like how the process borrows from science and connects to the way we determine our geological epoch,” he explains. Last August, the International Geological Conference unanimously recommended the adoption of a new epoch, bringing an end to the Holocene, which has lasted 11,700 years. The new era, the Anthropocene, is defined by human intervention in the geological record.

Without seeing Guariglia’s work in person, it is easy to dismiss its monumental scale as a gimmick, just as it is easy to dismiss the threat of melting ice sheets as remote. But looking at a towering image of glacial land ice in his studio, I feel a pit forming in my stomach. That same day, the temperature in the North Pole reaches 50 degrees above normal, climbing past the melting point. Guariglia’s image may be designed to last for centuries, but the ice sheet it depicts has, in all likelihood, already transformed beyond recognition.