Sunday, October 20, 2013

Edward Burtynsky at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans Museum of Art, Arthur Roger Gallery

In South Louisiana, we know a thing or two about water. We are not only surrounded by it, the air we breathe is often permeated with it, so our relationship with water is intimate. Yet, intimate relationships often have elements of surprise, and while Edward Burtinsky's photographs, which occupy two floors of gallery space at the Contemporary Arts Center, are often too spectacular to be truly intimate, they do pack a tsunami of surprise. His sweeping amphibious landscapes, whether all natural or shaped by human intervention, can be startlingly graphical, and if the latter day proliferation of  large scale photographs has already shown us how painterly such images can be, many of Burtinsky's works bear a striking resemblance to abstract canvases.

Others reflect a more predictable documentary perspective, but even these can be boldly graphic. A view of water blasting from the massive concrete fastnesses of a Chinese dam, above,s as extravagantly dramatic as any 19th century romantic vision of Niagra Falls, only much more monumental. Similarly, Stepwell #4, left, a view or an excavation pit in India, suggests an inverted ziggurat, or maybe one of those maddening Escher drawings of staircases looping infinitely back upon themselves. But such ground level vistas are far outnumbered by aerial shots like Navajo Reservation/Suburb, a bird's eye view of the meandering sprawl of a Phoenix, Arizona, suburb divided from a vast empty desert at the fringe of the Navajo nation by an infinitely long, straight border. Pivot Irrigation #1, High Plains, Texas, bottom, looks strikingly like an early 1930s graphics experiment by the proto-modernist German Bauhaus group, and Thjorsá River #1, Iceland, pictured, suggests an especially gorgeous Dorothea Tanning surrealist painting. Organized by New Orleans Museum of Art photography curator Russell Lord, Water is a collaborative production of NOMA and the CAC.  Similar Burtinsky works can be seen in a separate exhibition at the Arthur Roger Gallery. ~D. Eric Bookhardt      

Water: Large-Scale Aerial Photographs by Edward Burtynsky, through Jan. 19, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805; Water: Large-Scale Aerial Photographs by Edward Burtynsky, through Nov. 23, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.