Oil and Water at the Corcoran

Contributing editor James Conaway is also our resident art buff, so we’ve asked him to review some of the best exhibits he visits in his travels. Today he contrasts two exhibits currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C.

Picture 11.pngWashington, D.C.’s prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art currently has two oddly complementary exhibits of special interest to visitors and residents alike. The first is Oil, by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, which opened this past weekend. It’s a heroic display of wall-size photographs taken over a decade that document the influence of the world’s most ubiquitous, dwindling resource upon our environment and upon ourselves. The second, Sargent and the Sea, is an antiphonal, painterly alternative to this reality by the 19th-century artist, John Singer Sargent, whose early drawings and paintings depict a still pristine, unhydro-carbonated, impossibly naive world.

Burtynsky’s odyssey to some of the least lovely assemblages of post-industrial detritus can best be described as dreadfully gorgeous. “Industrial sublime” is the phrase used by the curators, and that works, although the word sublime was intended for natural phenomena of such grandeur and power that the beholder is transported to a nether space somewhere between fear and ecstasy. Well, when you’re confronted with the derriere-end products and landscapes of a century of unbridled internal combustion, you too will be both afraid and aesthetically moved.


Atlantic Sunset.jpgThe exhibit opens with vast fields of stripper wells that reminded me

of paintings of Anselm Kiefer, apocalyptic landscapes in gunk, but

Burtynsky’s thoroughly scrubbed, unglazed photographs have deep blues

in the foreground that are in fact oil slicks, not bonny lagoons, and

oil derricks dwindling to infinity like spines on the corpus of a

flayed, exhausted land. He gets wound up in the early and middle

sections of the exhibit with abstract arrangements of pipes and other

bright, industrial linguini, then moves into some of the prime, stylish

imbibers of oil — motorcycles under endless western skies, speed-eaters

on the salt flats — but the treasures are in the final room called,

appropriately, “The End of Oil.”

I liked the pastiche of

compressed oil barrels stacked like colorful cordwood, the platoons of

junked engines and foothills of abandoned car tires. But my favorites

were taken in the ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh where oil tankers

are disassembled by hapless human beings literally stuck in oil,

looking pathetically hopeful while the rest of us, looking on, feel

sick, doomed, and of course fascinated. The shot of the bones of an

abandoned tanker against the sunset has its own Grand Canyon grandeur

in cameo, beautiful and, yes, scary as hell.

Consider the ship

seen in Sargent’s painting not in the soft light of sunset but as a

prequel to Burtynsky’s photographs, and it seems bound not for a

romantic shore but for Bangladesh. Relatively speaking, the Earth

radically changed in less time than it took old John Singer Sargent’s

paintings to dry, and that’s the lesson of these two worthy exhibits.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil from Corcoran Gallery of Art on Vimeo.

Above, Edward Burtynski, “Shipbreaking #23, Chittagong, Bangaldesh”. Below: John Singer Sargent, “Atlantic Sunset,” c. 1876-78, oil on canvas. Private Collection. Images and video, courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery.

Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 Seventeenth Street NW, hours and admission here.

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