New York

Edward Burtynsky

Charles Cowles Gallery

Gone are the days of big canvases glutting exhibition spaces, now that photography has largely replaced painting as the medium of choice among contemporary artists. The “new painting” often has little to do with painting itself, of course, except perhaps in terms of scale; indeed, the ubiquity of the photograph almost makes one yearn for fleshy oils on canvas. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs, however, seemed geared to satisfy that yearning. In this small survey of work from the past decade, Burtynsky presented a mini-history of postwar art, complete with references to Abstract Expressionism and post-painterly abstraction as well as to Environments and Minimalism. At the same time, his emphasis on monumentality recalls traditional history painting, complete with miniature human figures to indicate scale.

Burtynsky’s “Shipbreaking” series, 2000–2001, is a case in point. Though he doesn’t stage his scenes in the overtly artificial manner of fellow Canadian Jeff Wall, these are meticulously choreographed images nonetheless. Burtynsky sets up a shot like a latter-day Claude Lorrain blocking out his landscape with trees and crumbling temples. In Shipbreaking #9a & b, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000, a two-part work, the rusting, deformed hulks of disassembled ships lead the eye into the background, where the scattered components of an industrial graveyard are visible. In the middle distance in both images is a line of workers staring out at the viewer. The spaciousness of such locales stands in contrast to the tighter, more abstract views inside the bodies of the behemoths. Shipbreaking #48, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001, focuses on a wall covered in painterly drips of deep red rust, the recognizable elements of the ship’s interior anatomy subsumed in the overall abstraction.

In an earlier series shot in granite quarries in the United States and Canada, Burtynsky adopted the looming frontality of the Becher school. Yet he invests works like Rock of Ages #26, Abandoned Rock Section, E.I. Smith Quarry, Barre, VT, 1991, with a romanticism that is alien to the Bechers’ typological approach. Burtynsky’s large-format view camera captures every last nook and cranny of the granite cliffs, allowing the eye to lose itself in the wealth of surface detail. This clarity leads to a kind of postindustrial confrontation with a sublime nature heavily deformed by human activity. Burtynsky’s photos of piled cast-off tires in California give a mild sense of vertigo as the heaped objects appear to teeter high above the viewer. One might think of Allan Kaprow’s 1961 Environment Yard, a gallery filled with tires for visitors to climb. but in these hyperrealistic photographs it is difficult to imagine the ascent into the vast stretches of rubber. Again, the sheer consistency of the image’s ultrasharp focus denies the perception of spatial recession.

Burtynsky’s photographs are expertly produced and visually striking. But they run the risk of becoming mere pretty pictures. This tendency could be seen most clearly in the “Container Ports” series, 2001, shots of stacked shipping units in Vancouver storage yards that indulge too obviously in the uncritical contemporary fascination with the symbols of globalism. Indeed, the project as a whole can be understood as an investigation of the extreme spatial limits of international capitalism, its marginal activities exposed. Yet Burtynsky’s own work can be found at the more familiar end of capital’s spectrum: the luxury object that is unlikely to suffer the fate of worn-out ships and used tires.

Gregory Williams