Man Makes Waves


Sea’ Extols Nature’s Glory, While’Oil’ Extracts It

It is often said that oil and water don’t mix, but a pair of stellar exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art beg to differ.

In fact, the Corcoran has turned up two of the best artistic offerings of the fall season with exhibitions that alternately extol the glory of nature and the devastation that man can wreak on it. The simply titled photography collection “Oil” by Edward Burtynsky — who traveled the world from 1997 to 2009 to capture the lifecycle of this precious resource — and “Sargent and the Sea” — an exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s lush 19th-century seascape paintings — aren’t meant to be paired for viewing, but the juxtaposition succeeds effortlessly nonetheless.

Burtynsky’s photographs are hard-edged, riveting and realist, while Sargent’s paintings and sketches are soft, serene and timeless. Both are arresting for their exquisite skill and both should resonate with a Washington audience. But acclaimed Canadian photographer Burtynsky’s work is especially relevant to the politics of the nation’s capital and brilliantly reflects the ongoing hand-wringing over the world’s dwindling oil supplies.

Any Washington policymaker who has influence over U.S. energy interests owes it to themselves — and to the rest of us — to see this exhibition. Even the most informed policy wonk will appreciate how Burtynsky takes us beyond our often abstract ideas about “energy” and into the reality of oil production, consumption and excretion. There may or may not be a better way to power our lives, but Burtynsky’s work strongly suggests the current energy path is not sustainable.

The artist’s mesmerizing large-scale photography shows just how reliant on oil we have become for everything from transportation to cosmetics to plastics. Burtynsky also forces us to think about how much we don’t want to think about oil — how it’s extracted and refined, transported and consumed, and ultimately discarded in the form of pollution. As the artist himself said at the Corcoran press preview: Oil is a lot like blood — vital to life but largely unseen. And when we do see it, it usually means something is wrong.

The exhibition is chronological in its depiction of oil, starting with scenes from the vast oilfields of the United States and Canada. These are massive but terrifically vivid photographs that cover huge expanses of the Corcoran Gallery’s walls. Often taken from helicopters or airplanes, the photos give us a sense of the enormity of oil extraction. At times it’s a messy business, as revealed in photos of dozens of dirty oil derricks littering the sand outside Bakersfield, Calif.

But sometimes, the view is more precise, more pleasing to the eye. Gleaming silver pipelines snake across lush, tree-lined meadows like geometrically precise lasers, turning at right angles in their efficient effort to move the precious black gold to market.

Some images are both horrifying and oddly compelling. A photo from the great Canadian tar sands — now viewed as one of the more promising and abundant sources of 21st century oil — reveals a vast lagoon of sludge scarring the landscape, as the ebony expanse shimmers under a twilight sky. The photograph’s subject is totally toxic and eerily beautiful at the same time.

Burtynsky’s views of the transportation grids and industrial warehouses of Los Angeles spell out us exactly how oil fuels our busy, consumptive lives. His photos of the visually thunderous and gasoline-thirsty motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, coupled with an endless expanse of new cars sitting in lots awaiting shipment to dealerships, together act as an exclamation point.

Burtynsky even tosses in a picture of the myriad azure swimming pools glistening in the parched Las Vegas landscape for good measure. This photo gives us a glimpse of the artist’s next project — on the scarcity of water, a topic Sargent would most likely have appreciated.

While Burtynsky certainly aims to make us aware of oil, its importance in our lives and the effects of its consumption, his exhibition never feels preachy. Burtynsky acts more as journalist than advocate. It’s as if he’s saying, “Here are the facts. Do with them what you will.”

As thought-provoking as the first two parts of “Oil” are, it’s in the final segment, titled “The End of Oil,” that the exhibition produces a sort of jaw-dropping profundity. Here, Burtynsky’s work takes on an almost Hieronymus Bosch-esque quality, as images of abandoned oilfields, acres of spent, deflated tires and the blowtorch-heavy process of oil tanker disassembly in Bangladesh evoke thoughts of a post-apocalyptic hell. It’s a final image that leaves the viewer both visually dazzled and intellectually disturbed.

Water — or more specifically the sea — gets a much more idyllic treatment in the Corcoran’s groundbreaking examination of John Singer Sargent’s seascape masterpieces.

Sargent is best known for his society portraits, but this first-ever exhibition focuses on the Philadelphia-born artist’s early years as a painter, when he naturally turned to what he knew best as a young man raised in a family steeped in trade, shipping and other maritime pursuits.

A pair of large seascapes — “Atlantic Sunset” and “Atlantic Storm” — beautifully captures the dichotomous nature of the sea. “Atlantic Sunset” is serene and somewhat removed, allowing the viewer to observe from a distance a ship lazily traversing the sea as a streaky orange and pink sunlight shoots through the cloudy horizon. Sargent’s command of light is evident in the sun-dappled waters of the foreground. The painting lulls us into a sense of romantic remove, and tempts us to come aboard for the journey.

“Atlantic Storm” is an entirely different viewing experience. This painting puts the viewer onboard a listing ship as enormous swells threaten to capsize the vessel. The horizon — a menacing, shifting dark-blue sky — accounts for only about a third of the painting. Roiling, slate-blue waves and furiously cresting whitecaps dominate the canvas. The ship itself is nearly inverted. As the deck plunges toward the sea, two shadowy figures try to scurry up its bough seeking safety. A pair of lifeboats are lashed to the sides of the ship and seemingly bang against its sides, failing miserably to offer any solace.

“Sargent and the Sea,” while focused on Sargent’s seascapes, isn’t limited strictly to the water. The painter also produced vivid portraits of what springs from the sea, including a gleaming, kinetic portrait of a pair of freshly fished octopus.

Sargent’s ability to capture atmosphere is among the most impressive elements of his work. The sun-brushed “Port Scene II” suggests all the energy and enthusiasm of a salt-scented summer day. “Port Scene I,” however, captures a completely different mood, as drab clouds cast a winterish pall over a cluster of darkened buildings along the water’s edge.

Just as “Oil” might resonate among a Washington audience infused with a deep understanding of the geopolitics of crude, “Sargent and the Sea” will be familiar to a region whose lives are touched by the aquatic rhythms of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Of course, people from all around the world frequent the Corcoran. But this is also a museum that either intentionally or unintentionally manages through its exhibitions to create a lasting and distinctive sense of place and relevance for those who live in and around the nation’s capital.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.