Review: Edward Burtynsky’s Oil at Hasted Hunt Kraeutler


Exhibition Reviews

After the addition of new partner Joseph Kraeutler, gallery Hasted Hunt went through instant reincarnation as Hasted Hunt Kraeutler (H2K), it relocated to a new space on 24th Street (an obvious improvement over the previous one) and added Edward Burtynsky to its roster of artists. Recession? What recession?

Burtynsky then, and this time it’s “Oil” (on view until 28 November 2009), a body of work that in effect visually (and in part literally) combines various of his previous efforts. There are the Californian oil fields, there are huge fields covered with new cars or discarded airplanes, there are vast holes in the ground, where something was ripped from the body of this planet. This approach is probably the best way to present this photographer’s work. I have always thought that earlier exhibitions, which focused on a single aspect - such as, for example, quarries - suffered from the fact that while the images all were beautiful, adding a whole bunch together ruined a large part of their appeal: Seriously, how many different quarries do you really want to look at?

What is more, different parts of “Oil” seem to appeal to different parts of the brain: There’s something for the right half and something for the left half. Combining everything not only actually makes you want to look for more rooms (a welcome change from the “what? another room with quarries?” dread), it actually makes the images interact with each other.

Of course, all of the photographs in the show are very big; of course (this is Burtynsky), they are all technically exquisite; of course (this is H2K), they are all lit well. It’s a beautiful show, with very strong images and, ultimately, a disturbing message once you start to think about what you actually see: This is a show about our lifestyle, about us extracting oil from the ground - a process which leaves large areas ruined - so we can drive around in cars and enjoy our various gadgets, most of them made of plastic - which leaves even more parts of this planet, including its atmosphere, ruined.

There have been complaints about Burtynsky not being more vocal about his - or a - message. I frankly have never understood these complaints. What is there left to say when you see a ravaged landscape? Does an artist really need to crank the “obvious” setting all the way to an 11 by adding a ranting statement? Are not we better served when the artist leaves it up to us viewers to make up our own minds, to infer from what we see to what it means? Do we really need to be told that, yes, the artist is environmentally conscious?

A clear must-see show.