Ice age painting exhibit marries art and science

Traveling art show planned for October kickoff at Copper River Gallery

Painter David Rosenthal at work in his home studio. (May 3, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Would you rather go to an art show or a scientific exhibit? Would you rather view paintings of Alaska landscapes, or learn about the effects of climate change on glacier environments?

Why not both? “Painting at the End of the Ice Age,” a planned exhibition by Cordova-based artist David Rosenthal, will use paintings to illustrate how Alaska’s wintry landscapes are changing. And, while thesauruses may offer “glacial” as a synonym for “slow,” glacial environments can, in fact, be remarkably active.

“Glaciers surge and retreat rapidly in geological terms, so paintings from my short lifespan show significant changes over time,” Rosenthal wrote.

The exhibit uses series of realistic paintings to depict glaciers at different points over the past two centuries. One triptych of oil-on-linen paintings shows Childs Glacier as it might have appeared in the 1800s and as it appeared in 1977 and 2017. The time-lapse effect is dramatic: a stark cliff of ice diminishing to a gently rounded incline. Rosenthal’s depiction of Childs Glacier in the 1800s was informed by a National Geographic survey that threw light on the glacier’s structure during that period, Rosenthal said.

“I hope people realize, when they see how the glaciers are uniformly retreating… that, yes, global warming is a real thing,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal is an autodidact who says that studying physics taught him more about realistic landscape painting than any art class. His previous scientific excursions include a voyage on the Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind out of Tromso, Norway; 10 seasons in Antarctica with the National Science Foundation; and a stint as a science technician at the Greenland ice sheet Summit Camp research station. Around his home, you’d be more likely to find copies of Scientific American and National Geographic than art journals. Nonetheless, Rosenthal may have depicted the Antarctic environment more than any other artist, said Denis Keogh, curator of collections and exhibits for the Cordova Historical Museum.

David Rosenthal arranges some of the paintings that will feature in his “Painting at the End of the Ice Age” exhibit. (May 3, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“David Rosenthal’s chosen path of chasing the rarefied light of the most austere locations at the farthest ends of both hemispheres has resulted in a visual chronicle unlike any other,” wrote Keogh in a catalogue for Rosenthal’s exhibit. “Through perseverance, discipline and a sense of awe of the world, Rosenthal has amassed a body of work that allows the viewer the opportunity to see parts of the beauty in places that continue to instill a sense of objective reverence in him, places incredibly remote, but now on the minds of us all.”

Since the 1970s, Rosenthal has produced hundreds of paintings of landscapes around Cordova and elsewhere. Rosenthal prefers working from sketches gathered at landscape sites to working from photos, he said.

Rosenthal’s work has previously been exhibited in Cordova on numerous occasions. The most recent exhibition dedicated to Rosenthal’s work was “Art and Science on the Katmai Coast,” a traveling art show that was hosted by the Copper River Gallery in 2017. Rosenthal has also contributed to other local art shows, including the “Quarantine Dreams” show hosted by the Copper River Gallery from December 2020-January 2021.

“Painting at the End of the Ice Age” is planned to launch at the Copper River Gallery this October before traveling elsewhere according to an itinerary which is still being determined. The exhibit is supported by the Cordova Historical Society.

A catalogue of artwork, photographs, and other material related to the exhibition is available for purchase at the Cordova Gear outdoor sports store. A more extensive catalogue may be published if there is sufficient interest, Rosenthal said. Rosenthal’s art can also be found online at www.antarcticpaintings.com.