The exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum comprises photos and paintings from the most endangered ecosystem on the planet.
Ice dominates nearly every picture in “Imaging the Arctic,” the smart, engaging exhibition now at the Nordic Heritage Museum. No wonder; we’re looking at Greenland, which is almost completely frozen over, along with much of the surrounding sea. But appearances can be deceptive. At the show’s outset are satellite photos illustrating the recent, drastic shrinking of the ice pack: this polar landscape, and the people and animals that depend on it, is one of the most threatened on Earth.
Perhaps that background is why I found Tiina Itkonen’s spectacular, large-format photograph of a frozen arctic cemetery (“Qaanaaq Graveyard”) so poignant. In the photo, several dozen identical white crosses, many hung with dried-up wreathes, frame a bay and mountain view of immense, epic emptiness. But the sculptural gray solitude that gives the picture its drama is something that is literally melting away; if current trends continue, oil tankers and even cruise ships may replace the icebergs on what is currently such a remote horizon.
The sharp-focus photos of the Helsinki-based Itkonen, whose powerful images of arctic villages, peoples, and landscapes have both cinematic sweep and carefully observed detail, are interspersed with the more modest watercolors of Seattle artist Maria Coryell-Martin, an intrepid traveler whose field sketches are made on location, then worked up into larger paintings in the venerable tradition of expedition artists going back to Darwin. Her strongest pieces capture some of the same sense of superhuman scale and icy strangeness, but with a restrained, almost monochromatic palette, depicted with a handful of well-chosen washes and shapes. She is better at machines and landscapes than people and animals, but her work has an earnestness to go with her ability to work almost anywhere (her sketch kit is part of the show). Water seems the ideal medium to depict what is mostly water in its various forms: icebergs, ice sheets, snow and sky, and she accomplishes a lot with a little.
‘Imaging the Arctic’
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 22, 3014 N.W. 67th St., Seattle; $6-$8, free on first Thursdays (206-789-5707 or nordicmuseum.org). Note: Marine mammal biologist Dr. Kristin Laidre and expeditionary artist Maria Coryell Martin will discuss the impact of sea ice loss on narwhals at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3, at the museum. Free.
The show was organized by University of Washington polar researcher Dr. Kristin Laidre and painter Coryell-Martin; Dr. Laidre’s comments are presented in a crisply written series of didactic panels, alongside a sampling of her scientific instruments and specimens — a polar bear skin and skull; the tracking collars for marine mammals. A particularly amusing and enlightening collaboration has her teaming with young Seattle cartoonist Owen Curtsinger, whose wall of graphic-novel style panels explore the mysteries of the narwhal tusk, next to both a tusk cast and a life-size watercolor of a tusk. The strip, “Myths of the Tusk,” summarizes the various theories as to what possible function the unicorn-like growth, up to 9-feet-long, might serve for the elusive and northerly whale. The current consensus: It’s about sex.
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The exhibition would not work nearly so well if not for photographer Itkonen, whose dozen-and-a-half images are almost all showstoppers. Her picture “Unartoq” features a smiling Inuit hunter striding across the arctic desert with only his footprints for company. According to the caption, he is carrying a hunting blind, but to the casual glance, the image is like a Bizarro World version of Claude Monet, where the field of poppies has been run over by a glacier, and the girl with a parasol has been swapped out for a guy in polar-bear trousers.
The elegiac mood of the show is nicely summed up by another Itkonen stunner, “Landscape II.” Tiny dots in the immensity, four sled dogs are tied to a snowbank. Their heads, silhouetted against the sea, are thrown back in full-on, closed-eye howling, a sound in that otherwise silent place that we can clearly hear in our mind’s eye, like a lament.