The Art of the Art that Melts: Brooklyn Ice Sculptor Joe O’Donoghue’s Latest Exhibit

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You know those stories where someone finds a random object that turns out to be a key to a very usual looking door that’s actually a portal which opens up into a magical land? Well, one day I was walking down Plymouth Street, past the great Brooklyn Roasting Co. and I stopped to take a picture of a bright yellow spray-painted outline of a leaf. Kept walking. The next Saturday, I’m walking by the same leaf. Caught in a smile for something that looks like a tribute to autumn on an otherwise industrial stretch of cobblestone, I realize the heavily graffitied basement door below is open and, low and behold, the place is a gallery. The whitewashed space is full of hanging slabs of weathered wood. They are beautiful, but what are they? They’re all keys.

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Artist Joe O’Donoghue walked out of his studio into his newly renovated gallery space, shook my hand, and immediately began to introduce not only himself, but his actual story. Anybody who knows him professionally might think ICE FANTASIES when they hear his name. This is only fair, as O’Donoghue has been dubbed the ice sculptor to the stars, working on Martha Stewart’s televised holiday shows, being covered by Vogue, sculpting for Victoria’s Secret ads and supplying hundreds of other big name brands and entertainment venues with mind-blowing, often high-towering, sculptures of ice. He’s won an Emmy. However, this new exhibit, which will be fully installed in January 2015, is literally about the underpinning of his sculpting career. The work show-cased will be the artifacts of this art that melts; the stuff that holds the mysteries of each gnash of chainsaw on freezing surface, each clang of the chisel to the very edge of the ice, the effects of what drips and puddles on the surface below- the wood. Earth. Touch.

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O’Donoghue tells me that he’ll be showing the wooden slats placed under the tempered ice he chisels, power-saws and torches. It’s the art of his mastery. These metal teethmarks and strong but sharp wood-shards are the effects of his ephemeral work on less easily dissolved elements. “I knew from this first one- these marks. And I kept it. I kept ’em all.” He’s excited. This is new, though, ironically, these pieces were always there, holding things together. O’Donoghue explains them as intentional artwork: “I realized what was happening and you see, some are warped, but later on I started flipping them.” He talks fast, and I sense it isn’t just because he wants to get his latest commissioned work done on this fine Saturday afternoon, but because this his first expose and this is an exhibit of retrospective proportions. O’Donoghue is an ice sculptor, but his career hasn’t just been made of that which melts beautifully. There are tools, there’s method to the magic- this is it. He’s clearly having his cake and eating it with this show, straddling the world of “lasting” art and that of naturally performing art. On an even deeper level, the wood is what survived the ice.

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In the back studio, the sculptor opens two doors, one to a sizable walk-in freezer full of four foot ice blocks and the other to a huge storage room, filled with the tools of his trade (possibly a few from other professions- it was well-stocked…). Awards and personal photos are scattered among a collection of news cut-outs, photos from magazines adorn the walls. Sketches line the beams and pipes around the low ceiling.

“You can take pictures, but it’s a mess.” What else would allow for such work but a fair amount of chaos? I don’t see a problem, as I’ve already become acquainted with the product of the studio.

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To the left of the entrance of the storage room, a large wooden sculpture leans at an angle against the wall, held slightly aloft by a strap. The metal skull formed at the center of a wooden cross once bled ice.

“They invited me to do a piece for this Earth Day show, but when they saw this skull bleeding ice they said ‘ya gotta take it down!’ I guess they thought it was too dark…I was like ‘don’t invite me to a show then tell me what to do…'”

He gave the Earth Day folks damage and decay when they’d been looking for something more “upbeat”. The piece is about the wear and tear of circumstances on the materials: the wood is from the only wood slab O’Donoghue ever broke, the metal is easily affected, provoked by the melting ice to change colors like a messy weathered mood ring. When the ice is gone, the piece is indefinitely shaped by it.

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O’Donoghue, a professionally accredited master of ephemeral art, keeper of mystifying methods of performing sculpture puts forth an important concept with this exhibit, which is that, no matter how stunning or worthy the cause, action has effects. There is weathering, warping, aging, coloration, which are all a feat of time if one looks at wear from the proper angle. Back to magic, though, with this work, the artist becomes the facilitator of his own cause and effect method of creation. There will be sixty-two pieces for viewing come January, and each one tells a story of craft, acceptance and success in a long line of personal, artistic evolution. Wood. Earth. Touch.

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