Art Review: Henry Allen on Edward Burtynsky's 'Oil' at the Corcoran

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

In 1991, amid the media carnival that turned the Persian Gulf War into a sideshow, the central figure in television coverage became not a general or a hero sergeant, but a staggering cormorant that had gotten slimed by all the oil that Saddam Hussein (or somebody) was pouring into the local waters as sabotage. It became a logo for the war, the way the peacock was a logo for NBC. It seemed to appear after every commercial break.

Oil had become vile by that time, and cormorants were sacred. Since the oil shocks of the 1970s, we had discovered that petroleum was not just a resource but an addiction. We craved and loathed it at the same time. We despised our addiction but reveled in the cars, plastic, electricity, suburbs, Hula-Hoops, vinyl siding and so much modern life that petroleum had given us for so long that we took it for granted.

Now we were fighting a war about oil, while claiming we were fighting for the freedom of the plucky Kuwaitis who had avoided the fate of the cormorant by taking refuge in the casinos of Cairo.

There was a paradox at work here. What did the doomed bird mean? Were we the oil-junkie greedheads who sent it staggering to its death? Were we the cormorant?

Soon a Canadian photographer named Edward Burtynsky would be asking the same question.

"In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany," he writes in "Oil," a book that includes the pictures that are now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

"It occurred to me that all the vast man-altered landscapes I had pursued for over 20 years had been made possible by the discovery of oil and the progress occasioned by the internal combustion engine."

Here at the Corcoran are 57 beautiful pictures of refineries, junkyards, oil sands, the Sturgis, N.D., motorcycle rally, acres of cars waiting to be shipped to dealers, Las Vegas suburbs, wilderness pipelines, abandoned oil fields, abandoned oil tankers and Los Angeles freeway interchanges that used to soar over us like angelic contrails leading to the future and now seem like tired souvenirs of our foolishness -- nothing is more old-fashioned than yesterday's tomorrow.

These are big pictures shot with big cameras from cranes and helicopters and printed big -- like, six feet wide -- in chromogenic color. And beautiful, that's the weirdest thing about them. All those refineries as pure and patterned as Charles Sheeler's Ford plant pictures before World War II, the mystery glow of post-apocalyptic shipbreaking, which is an industry in countries like Bangladesh. Tankers go to die there, to be torn apart for scrap by workers who are too poor to worry about PCBs and lead poisoning. They are cormorants.

Anyway, petrodeath and plasti-glut, trash and pollution and the rape of the wilderness are shown as beautiful. How shocking. How wrongheaded, politically incorrect and unenlightened.

Since the 19th century, the approved way of inducing shock in art has been to make the beautiful ugly. (See reactions to art from Manet's "Olympia" to Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ.") By now, shocking with ugliness or irony has become just another salon-art trick taught to students at the Yale School of Art.

At the Corcoran, Burtynsky is running the machine backward, shocking with beauty.

"I want to invite people into the piece," he said in conversation the other day. "I want to make it an immersion experience where people say, 'I'm in here but I shouldn't like it.' I want to create that tension, have them attracted yet repulsed, to show them the dilemma we're in."

He knows what he's doing, he knows his art history and politics, and he knows how to use paradox to lure and bewilder viewers.

He photographs elegies, but horrific ones, like postcards from the post-apocalypse.

He gives us documents in the great photographic tradition, but we don't see them as evidence, we see them as pattern, color and vanishing points. They are enclosed and timeless. They are composed with the flatness of modern art in mind -- Burtynsky shoots at dawn and twilight and on cloudy-bright days when there are no hard shadows to model things. He shoots from the air, looking down onto an Earth flattened by his altitude. And he stays out of the way -- so distant from mountains of bald tires or rows of pumpjacks or junked fighter planes or the fearful symmetries of suburbia seen from above or road signs in Breezewood, Pa. (Exxon McDonald's Sunoco Diesel Supreme Petro:Lube Ramada Self Cash Regular Plus Supreme) that we're left feeling oddly alone, even doomed, in front of the pictures. Like the cormorant.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil runs through Dec. 13 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Visit

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