Scratching the Surface: Refining Resin’s Place in Modern Art

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Six feet tall, by six inches deep, by six feet wide, and two drums of Silmar clear casting resin. That is the minimalist’s recipe for a new piece of art on display in Southern California. The sculptor, Anthony Ortega, knows the process was much more complex. Aside from the blood, sweat and tears that come naturally with many passion projects, Ortega added five years of research and development to his creative process. And as a result, he’s worked with resin composites in a capacity unlike any NAC has ever seen.

Ortega has a longstanding partnership with NAC. During the last 12 years, he’s been affiliated with his  father’s  company, Ortega Manufacturing. “My dad’s manufacturing plant dealt with polyesters, GP (general purpose) resins, laminating resins, etc.” Ortega recalled working with everything from surfboard planks, to speakers for electronics company JBL, to carnival rides and slides.

Then about five years ago, he began his work casting resins and immediately aimed for the large scale.

“Normally, customers that use this type of product are manufacturing small castings,” said Jeremy Locke, account manager for NAC. “Other customers of mine have made crystals for chandeliers in Las Vegas, so really small stuff compared to what Anthony is doing.”

But, especially in this industry, size doesn’t matter nearly as much as the time it takes to perfect it. Locke said Ortega worked with NAC, along with a sales representative from Interplastic, to develop the process. The size of the casting posed several problems. The more common issues seen in resin casting include fragmenting, the formation of air bubbles and the standard cracks and chips. Working with a piece this size, Ortega had seen a few more things. “I had pieces smoking at one point, I had pieces just about boiling, almost catching on fire,” Ortega said. “I’ve seen just about everything in  the casting. The environment has to be in perfect conditions.”

Of course, NAC offered guidance during the research and development stages.

“We helped, and we provided what we call a catalyst, or an initiator, to help reduce the exotherm, helped him with starting formulas, guided  him  on  when  to  release  parts  out  of  molds  to prevent certain things. Not only does it get hot, but as  it’s  curing, it shrinks [and] can snag on certain parts of the mold,” Locke explained. He laughed, then elaborated. “He did a lot of trial and error; a lot more error than he’d probably admit to.”

Ortega said it took him almost five years to master these types of castings. “That’s just the pouring of the resin and the catalyzation, time and temperature readings. And then it took probably another year or two to master the final sculpting and polishing,” Ortega explained. “I literally had to build my own art studio specifically for casting and polishing.”

Ortega is grateful for the support he’s gotten from NAC, but he also recalled his “make it or break it” point. “I asked one of the chemists, ‘How is it possible to make a two-drum pour?’ and he said that you can only go so far or so low in your ratios, that if you go any more it’s not going to work, and his advice was basically, ‘Good luck,’” Ortega laughed. “After that, it was more like a challenge to prove to myself that I am capable of creating such things.”

So, over time and with rigorous research, Ortega went from producing a large part in eight months to refining and cutting that length of time considerably.

The finished product stands at an impressive six feet by six feet, in the shape of a giant teardrop. It’s made of roughly two 55-gallon drums of resin and stands on its own, and its light blue hue is completely transparent. Ortega cites Mexico’s Cave of the Crystals as his inspiration — a scene in nature of epic, science-fiction proportions. Ortega said he was fascinated by the crystals, drawn to their simultaneous simplicity and complexity. “It literally only took a few molecules to create these crystals underneath the earth, but the conditions had to be perfect in order for them to actually form,” he explained. “I was inspired by that because with resin castings, it’s the same thing. You have only a few ingredients that you pour into a mold or a casting, and the conditions have to be perfect in order for that thing not to split, crack; in order for it not to be defective and not usable.”

In October 2018, the teardrop was unveiled to the public for Ortega’s solo artist debut, and prior to its being exhibited, the sculptor reflected on the process. “When you are sitting  there  struggling and trying to engineer a piece of this size, the amount of work, the chemistry behind it, the engineering, everything that goes into it; when you get to see that piece stand free on its own, the sheer beauty of it is indescribable.”

Engineering is a fitting term to describe his process. All in all, Ortega estimates he burned through 20 to 30 drums of resin, at least, while perfecting his formula. And he plans to use much more. His next artistic venture includes a massive, crystal-clear sculpture, also made of resin.

“As resin artists, we’ve really only scratched the surface of the capabilities that resin has,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be sticking with resin by itself [as a medium] but venturing off into other lanes of resin casting.” Ortega said his new experiments include double and triple casting, which makes for an interesting optical illusion, and testing glow-in-the-dark sculptures. A more refined recipe is in the works.

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