Iliana Ortega: The Call of the Sea

Iliana Ortega is a Mexican-born artist who spends most of her time in New York City. But a few months ago, during the quarantine, she was invited by friends to spend time in Honolulu. During the several months she lived there, Ortega made a number of short videos silently documenting the sea and its whitecaps coming on to the shore. This is in keeping with a long-standing interest of Ortega’s in water and its movement; her fine drawings, mostly abstract, sometimes address water as well. Who would have thought it possible to revive the tradition of the seascape in video or in the small notebook drawings she is accustomed to make? One thinks of 19th-century realism and its attentiveness to the sea, but Ortega’s work is hardly antiquarian. Instead, she successfully finds an abstract beauty in the currents and waves of the ocean, with the whitewater advancing its fluidity to the land. In doing so, the artist captures the clear blue seas surrounding Hawaii, which echo with a rich, close to infinite pattern as the waters rush and break in their forward movement.

The sea, of course, is an actual phenomenon, but Ortega comes close to rendering it as something abstract. The undulating patterns of her videos nearly mesmerize her audience. It cannot be said that Ortega is a figurative artist, but a certain realism does play a part in her work. In the dark photographs she has recently been making, points and lines of light sparsely illuminate black expanses. Her point is to focus attention on those elements of visual expression that would carry from a natural environment to a deeper, darker initiation of nonobjective art. By “darker” I do not mean more melancholic or dangerous--only that in the large photos we see the absence of light as an actual presence. Still, the true theme Ortega communicates is that of the sea; its vast expanse and rippling tide suggest patterns beyond our knowledge and thus an infinite detail that is constantly changing. The videos are especially effective in capturing the motion of the water; Ortega has used a drone to record the sea and its vagaries off the coast of the Honolulu shore.

Marine Buoy (2021), a thirty second video, perfectly introduces us to Ortega’s subject. It begins with a variegated dark green streaked with patterns that resemble marble. Off to the center left is a small, round dot--presumably the marine buoy shot by the drone, which moves higher into the atmosphere as the short film continues. In the end of the video, we see two inchoate, slightly lighter green pools within the water, giving the picture a contrast that slightly resembles an organic abstract painting. In the video, the pattern of the sea moves upward; one has the sense of a wall of water traveling skyward. Yet, at the same time, we are looking down at the ocean. The small white object, which recedes to the point of not being seen, is the only man made construction in the film. It serves as a reminder that there is almost no place on earth where we can completely escape the traces of human presence. The sea itself, a monolithic entity, reminds us that most of the world is covered with water, which becomes a topic of interest in its own right. The beauty of large bodies of water is thus imaged in ways that do not emphasize its potential danger so much as demonstrate its capacity for patterns unavailable except from above.

Ortega’s drawings are as accomplished as Marine Buoy. 2 Notebook 22 (most of the drawings and photographs were created this year) is a beautiful notebook drawing with three elements: on the left, a rough triangle whose interior is filled with small marks; in the middle, the section consists of striations that are aligned vertically; and on the right, a dark shape, similar to the one on the left. One imagines that the drawing might reflect patterns in the sea, but it is also true that it stands as an abstraction. Perhaps the mixture of realism and abstract imagery is the best way to describe Ortega’s art, which balances her interest in and affection for bodies of water with an equally committed sense of its abstract design. Drawings capture the essence of things, as well as the spirit of the artist. In Ortega’s notebook, seemingly casual efforts take on an importance larger than the sum of their parts. The work described here, seemingly of small consequence, actually contains a good deal of information and a sense of pattern that even suggests the monumental. It is a good example of Ortega’s quiet but encompassing approach to art.

In an earlier photograph, 8 Iceland (2011), Ortega works with stark contrasts. The image is composed of three parts: a white section of snow edging into a very dark expanse of rock, thinly lined in parts with snow and rising upward on the right. On the top is an image of gray sky, so the stone is sandwiched between two lighter areas. It is an image of dramatic quality, to the point of being apocalyptic. The barrenness of the picture reminds us that there are still places on earth that resist the human wish to control nature, which, after all, is beyond measure or containment. The beauty of the photograph cannot be denied; it is a study in marked contrasts, in which nature creates a reading as bare as the rock itself. 4 Big Sur (2018), a stunning color photograph of a silver sea cutting into an extent of land covered with dark green trees, captures a moment when the light transforms the ocean into something luminous and reflective, while the land, whose individual attributes are difficult to see, acts as a foil for the nearly white brightness of the water. We look down on the composition with more than a little awe: Who was it who said that God was the greatest artist?

5 Notebook (2021) is a minimal notebook drawing that has been rendered on grid paper. On the left half, we see a regularly spaced group of dots, separated by the fine blue lines of the grid, while on the right there is an open outline that suggests a blank page, although it is filled with the lines of the grid. In a work this simple, interpretations of many sorts are easily made. But we go back to the abstract origins of Ortega’s creativity. If we think about it, the sea is itself a minimal image--a sheet of blue-green that in Hawaii goes out as far as the eye can see. Its immensity and subtle design, as seen in the photographic images taken by the drone Ortega was controlling, intimate a monumentality without the slightest suggestion of an inner structure. Our vantage point from above delivers a view that emphasizes the endless remaking of patterns established by the subtle ripples and larger breakers that make their way to the shore. If this image is a static reproduction of a moment stilled by the camera, our imagination can quickly take us to a place where the surf is infinitely variable, arriving on the sands of Honolulu with imperturbable regularity. The contrast between its movement and the motionless presence of the sand give Ortega the chance to witness the endless duality between sea and land.

Ortega’s interest in the volatile nature of the sea lends itself to an ongoing commentary regarding something whose details are not easily explained. The water itself is recognizable as an image and therefore can be seen as something figurative, but the patterns it makes may be understood as abstract. The point at which the two kinds of seeing meet becomes the artist’s point of concern. In some ways, Ortega is taking a chance, in the sense that water has been rendered in art for centuries, and a continuation of its theme might be viewed as something archaic or even artificial. Yet, to the artist’s credit, she has, through something as contemporary as a camera carried on a drone, imaged the sea in a new way. The sea is immensely photogenic, but it is also large beyond words. Thus, it needs its content to be shaped if not constrained. Ortega forms her and our perception so that its visibility takes on an artistic impact. Her risk here is not small, but she pulls it off. 


As for the drawings, they are more quickly identifiable with current art practices. Ortega’s method is quite modest--she tends to draw on notebook paper of a schoolbook size. Her small marks and simple shapes suggest a preoccupation with the basic building blocks of drawing. At the same time, they suggest a tie with minimalist art, still influential, even though its high point occurred a half century ago. So the artist’s drawings are improvised versions of both her own imagination and the past. Ortega tends to deal with vivid contrasts, and this is evident not only in the images of land and sea, but also in the way she makes marks on paper, which tend to move from empty to full. The large, darker photographs, studies in darkness really, use bits of light to illuminate an abyss only a lack of light can create. In this way, Ortega makes it clear that we seem to be living in a world of juxtaposed oppositions--in light, in water, in art. Today, the need is great to construct a formalism that makes use of the past in order to draw our attention to original points of view. The idea of a seascape does not align easily with the notion of an abstract drawing. Yet the sea is abstract in its limitless patterning, while Ortega’s simply drawn forms do not escape the suggestion of something real. In the long run, our debt to her is based on her ability to merge a sense of the infinite with something highly particular. While we acknowledge that we are talking of contrasts, in the end we experience a sense of wholeness and completion in Ortega’s art.

Jonathan Goodman