Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Edward Burtynsky: Oil @Hasted Hunt Kraeutler

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 large color prints, framed in black and not matted, and hung in the entry area, three adjacent gallery spaces that wind around, and the back gallery space near the offices. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints, and were taken between 1999 and 2007. The images come in a dizzying array of sizes and editions; with some exceptions, the single images come in as many as four sizes (27x34, 40x50, 48x60, and 60x75, in editions of 10, 9, 6, and 3 respectively) while the diptychs appear to come in three sizes (36x78, 48x120/140, 60x180, sometimes framed as a single piece, other times as two images hung edge to edge, in editions of 5, 6, and 3 respectively). A monograph of the entire body of work has been published by Steidl (here) and is available from the gallery for $125. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Edward Burtynsky has made a career out of photographing the massive industrial landscapes that are often conveniently out of view, behind chain link fences or far away from everyday life. He has made images of huge factories, strip mines, quarries, ship yards and expansive industrial sites all over the world (we reviewed his book on China earlier this year here), making surprisingly beautiful images of sometimes ugly and forgotten places. Burtynsky's work shows a mastery of scale quite unlike other photographers at work today; he takes on the biggest, most un-photographable locations, and consistently finds subtle geometries and semi abstractions that often become striking visual patterns. His pictures work on two levels: the staggering decorative quality of the images, and the much tougher underlying questions that quickly emerge, that force the viewer to consider the downstream consequences of the activity being documented.
The enormous multi-national oil industry and its complex and fragile distribution chain is perhaps the perfect project for Burtynsky's brand of photography: the sites for extraction and refinement are colossal, and the secondary and tertiary industries (shipping, cars/highways, military, etc.) are equally gargantuan. What's a bit different here is that Burtynsky has stepped into a much hotter political fire with these pictures than in his previous work; given both the climate change issues as well as the intricate geopolitical ramifications of the future of petroleum, the oil industry and all its interconnections are subject to much broader scrutiny than ever before. (As an aside, two excellent books on this topic are Daniel Yergin's The Prize and Matthew Simmons' Twilight in the Desert.) In a sense then, Burtynsky's timing with this exhibition (and the larger one at the Corcoran, linked below) is excellent; this is a topic that many people are intensely interested in, and his thoughtful juxtaposition of beauty and commentary will get people thinking.
The images themselves cover the entire petroleum-based economy, from beginning to end. Several of the images in the show find repetitions in the endless acres of pumpjack wells of California and Azerbaijan (some now abandoned), black masses bobbing up and down, with adjacent towers and steeples, often artfully reflected in nearby pools of undisturbed water or sludge. Others follow the densely intertwined stainless steel pipes and tubes of refineries and chemical plants. A vast parking lot full of new cars at a VW plant in China and expansive ribbons of highway in Los Angeles show just how pervasive our car culture has become, and the array of moth-balled fighter jets in the Arizona desert is a not so subtle reminder of how strategic these fuels have become in our current world.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this show and feel like the content is both timely and important. My one knock on this exhibit is that I would have liked to have seen more of the images from this particular series; not every one on display hits the mark perfectly, and there are quite a few other works in the book that I would have enjoyed seeing in person. The back room of the show contains six of Burtynsky's recent landscapes of Australian mines: open pits with stagnant pools of water at the bottom, chasms of rock, red and orange earth, dirt roads and salt flats. And while these are solid images as well, I think showing these was a mistake; I would have certainly preferred to see a deeper sample of the Oil project, so that more of Burtynsky's comprehensive story could be told. The difference between 11 images here and 55 at the Corcoran is likely very significant in terms of the overall impact of the work.

Collector's POV: With the closing of the Charles Cowles Gallery, Hasted Hunt Kraeutler has taken over as Burtynsky's sole representative in the US. Given the complex bundle of sizes and editions, the price list for this show is equally detailed. For the single images, the prices start at $10000 for the smallest and rise through $16500 and $23000, finally reaching $30000 for the very largest works. For the diptychs, prices begin at $18000, and work their way up to $38000 and $51000 for the biggest sizes. There were lots of red dots and a few SOLD OUTs, just a week into the show.
Burtynsky's work began to be available in the secondary markets in about 2005 and the number of prints for sale in any given year has slowly grown since that time. Prices have ranged between $5000 and $35000. Size is a problem for us with Burtynsky's work (too big for our walls), but there are certainly a couple of striking images here that would provide an interesting contemporary foil for pictures of chemical plants and factories from between the wars that we already own.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Edward Burtynsky: Oil @Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2009 (here)
  • Reviews: Washington Post (here), DCist (here)
Through November 28th
537 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

1 comment:

BC said...

I saw Burtynsky give a talk at the Corcoran a couple years ago, and was actually fortunate to be able to talk to him privately for about 20 minutes as he sat next to me in the audience before his talk. I have yet to see the Oil show in person, although I have seen many of the images on the web. He makes great images and is able to explain what he is trying to achieve. I am generally against the current trend of many photographers to print their images larger and larger yet, but I think his images work very well in a larger size. However, like you I don't have a lot of space for large images.