Painting + Printmaking alum explores the spaces in between

Gallery view of Joe Cortina's work installed in McLean Project for the Arts

In analog television, the vertical interval refers to the space between—a gap between the final line of one frame and the first visible line of the next. But it’s not a space of emptiness; rather, this fleeting moment carries data and information, like time codes, translations, closed-captioning and other signals.

This space in time is also the inspiration behind Joe Cortina’s (BFA ’76) exhibition at the McLean Project for the Arts. Vertical Interval: New Works by Joseph Cortina comprises 21 paintings and two digital sculptures, and is the culmination of several years of work.

“Vertical interval felt like the right way to describe these paintings,” Cortina says. “They’re the information behind the lines, or between lines. Line, color, texture and surface are a big part of these works.”

Cortina has always walked the line between digital and physical. He studied in the Department of Painting + Printmaking at VCUarts and considers the medium his first love. After graduating, though, he walked down Broad Street and landed a part-time job as a 16mm film editor. That job led to a position at NBC News, where he directed Meet the Press, the Today show, and NBC Nightly News. He also worked for NBC Sports, directing the Olympics in Barcelona.

After a 20-year career in television—and winning five Emmy Awards—Cortina had an opportunity to work with renowned museum and exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum on the Newseum.

“I helped design the broadcast part of the museum, and created films and interactive experiences,” Cortina says. “I really loved this location-based media—the very freeing and creative uses of technology and space in an innovative way.”

In 1999, he founded Cortina Productions as a museum and location-based production company. They develop hand-held apps and 4D theaters with wind, sand, fog and butt kickers in the seats. They developed interactive films for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and have worked with countless aquariums, zoos, history and science museums, and presidential libraries. More recently, they’ve helped museums adapt to the pandemic by creating new apps, digital storytelling platforms with remote crowdsource capabilities, and touchless interactive experiences using infrared gesture recognition.

“We’ve done a lot of interesting, challenging creative projects,” he says, “that use every bit of my skills from VCUarts’ painting program.”

Some of those skills—like color and composition—might be obvious. But Cortina also credits critiques with developing a thick skin that has been “hugely helpful” through his career.

While Cortina has applied those analog skills in a digital realm, he sees his exhibition at MPA as a chance to flip the script and return to his painting roots.

“These paintings are almost freezing a moment in time,” he says. “All of the other things I do are 30 frames a second, 60 frames a second. These paintings are almost a way to grab that millisecond and make it physical.”

The exhibition also features two digital sculptures. For “I’ll Call You in the Future,” Cortina stacked two transparent LCD monitors in front of a cabinet with found objects and small paintings. Black and white animations create opaque and transparent spaces, that reveal the objects in the emptiness.

“It’s kind of the inverse of some of the paintings,” Cortina says. “Where the paintings are a moment in time, this takes the idea of layering information and seeing between and behind the lines to gain a better understanding of what’s hidden in the vertical interval.”

Even as a veteran of museum design, Cortina said it was interesting and insightful to see his work curated and displayed for the first time at MPA, under the direction of exhibitions director Nancy Sausser.

“I could see the evolution in a much more visceral way when [the works] are all up at the same time,” he says. “I could see things that recurred, see things that weren’t as obvious to me working on them one at a time.”

Vertical Interval: New Works by Joseph Cortina is on display at the McLean Project for the Arts until Feb. 20, 2021. A virtual exhibition, including an artist talk by Cortina, is also available on the MPA website.