Evoking meteorites, igneous rocks, and Mayan artifacts, Beatriz Cortez’s stained, weathered metal sculptures on view at Commonwealth & Council in Los Angeles forge historic and thematic ties between the circulation of geological matter and the movement of people across Earth’s surface. One particularly powerful piece, Ilopango, Stela A (2022), more specifically considers how natural disasters and climate change have altered the course of civilizations worldwide. Echoing the form of a Mayan stela, the sculpture is embellished with symbols loosely referencing the AD 431 eruption of Ilopango, a volcano that is now a caldera filled by one of El Salvador’s largest lakes. Cortez, an El Salvador native, has researched the volcano’s far-reaching impact: it eradicated Mayan settlements, rendered the area uninhabitable for decades, deposited tephra as far away as Greenland, and likely caused the planet’s temperature to cool.
The artist’s choice of medium, welded steel, dovetails with this theme of geological transformation. Charred welds—which would traditionally be sanded down and de-emphasized—here acquire an eerie beauty, crisscrossing the sculpture’s silvery surface to conjure visions of lava rivers and geographic boundaries such as tectonic plates. Drawings made with a welder and resembling deep burns depict an ash-spewing volcano at the upper left, followed by a series of abstract glyphs inspired by a Mesoamerican pyramid, a Mongol hut, ice caves, and a Roman archway. Related in shape, these inscriptions link together different eras and locations, speaking to the way volcanic particles travel to far-flung lands and trigger long-term changes to the planet’s topography and inhabitants. Small footprints toward the stela’s base lead to a simplified urban skyline that Cortez frames as an homage to modern Los Angeles and its Central American diasporic communities. In investigating ancient patterns of global migration and geographic change, the artist calls attention to the interconnected nature of human vulnerability.