Nicholas Warndorf's modern 'fossils' reflect the pervasiveness, scope of plastic waste

Andy Downing
Images in "Cosmology," a new exhibit by artist Nicholas Warndorf

Nicholas Warndorf long embraced a more traditional style of painting. But, following the artist’s graduation from Otterbein University, which left him absent a defined studio space, he started to take more abstract approaches to creation.

“I think there’s a difference using oils at home in a makeshift studio, a spare bedroom, versus having a dedicated studio space for it, and I started to pull away and do more drawing [after leaving Otterbein],” said Warndorf, who double-majored in art and philosophy. “And then I started experimenting with other materials, like I would go outside with some pieces of paper, some stencils and a can of spray adhesive. I’d cover the paper in glue and then I’d be that odd neighbor out on the street or the sidewalk, stomping this paper on the ground and then lifting it up to see what appeared. Then I’d layer some more glue and stomp it again and start to create this layering of grit.”

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Similar environmental experimentations surface in Warndorf’s new exhibit, “Cosmology,” which opens both virtually and in real life at 934 Gallery tonight(Friday, Oct. 2). Guests are required to register for in-person visits, which you can do by clicking here. The exhibit consists of a series of cyanotype photographs of plastic bags, which the artist envisions as modern fossils, along with a number of plastic artifacts that meld natural materials with the pervasive waste product, mirroring creations that are already beginning to occur in nature.

“There’s a beach in Hawaii that’s a little bit known for what they call plastiglomerate, which is these hunks of plastic that have fused with natural material like sand and stone so that it comes out looking something like this,” Warndorf said, directing attention to one of his sculptures.

The artist also referenced the urban foragers who visit shuttered auto plants in Detroit to chip away hunks of the walls from the rooms in which cars were once painted. The chunks, dubbed “Fordite,” contain hundreds of layers of different shades and paints that make them look like man-made tree rings. “You can cut a cross-section, polish it and literally see layers of this history,” Warndorf said.

Warndorf was initially drawn to exploring plastics as a subject by the sheer scale of the issue, which can be overlooked, he said, because the waste product tends to not pile up directly in front of our eyes. “We might see a bag blowing around in the streets and the alleys, but we don’t have square blocks of just piles of plastic,” he said. At the same time, the waste product exists in nearly every corner of the planet, filling landfills, floating in huge, island-like masses in the ocean and even making its way far into the sky in the form of microplastics that surf through the jet stream.

“The scale of what plastic has become is mind-boggling. I can’t get my head around it,” said Warndorf, who hesitated to describe his cyanotypes as “beautiful,” owing in part to the dark reality they reflect.

The photographs were created by layering plastic bags, which were then exposed to sunlight. Some images were later dyed using coffee, tea and other substances, creating a wider color palette (pieces left in their original form are a shade of cyan blue, hence the name cyanotype). In a handful of photographs, the subject is clear, including one where a big box grocer’s name is easily discerned. Others are more amorphous, passing for X-rays of undefined body parts or snapshots of ghostly apparitions. Still others fall somewhere in between, mirroring abstract landscapes where numbers and text are imprinted in the atmosphere.

Overall, though, the photographs represent the fossils Warndorf envisions future archeologists discovering imprinted in the environment due to the plastic’s pervasiveness. 

Warndorf first started experimenting with photographing plastic bags after being drawn toward the ones used by a convenience store near his home, which were imprinted with drawings of flowers. “And I thought it was really funny they were printing these pretty bouquets of flowers on these bags that are destroying flowers,” he said, describing the images in “Cosmology” as the culmination of this particular train of thought. “I think it’s definitely the final project. … I’ll probably start on an offshoot of this next. I’m not sure where it’ll go yet, but there’s always some kind of stream that kind of weaves its way through everything.”

Images in "Cosmology," a new exhibit by artist Nicholas Warndorf