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Edward Burtynsky @ Rena Bransten

Dryland Farming #1, 2010, Monegros County, Aragon Spain 
You may talk o' gin and beer/When you're quartered safe out 'ere/An' you're sent to penny-fights an' Aldershot it/ But when it comes to slaughter/You will do your work on Water/An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.
–Rudyard Kipling, from Gunga Din
When Edward Burtynsky pursues a subject, he doesn’t just nibble around the edges. He launches global investigations that produce finely modulated moral arguments.  That was the case with Oil, a magnum opus shown last year at the Nevada Museum of Art, and that is again the case with Water, a three-continent, four-year (2008-11) excursion that took him to nine countries.  As with Oil, where the photographer amassed a comprehensive view of the petrochemical industry, encompassing everything from extraction and refinement to consumption and recycling, Water travels a similar distance, dividing mankind’s uses and abuses of Earth’s most precious resource into six categories: distressed (water-rich areas gone dry); control (canals and dams); agriculture; aquaculture; waterfront (urban development); and source (mountains containing glaciers and snow). It’s an appropriately rigorous approach that gives shape and meaning to a subject that despite the preponderance of cold, hard facts, eludes widespread comprehension. The most notable among them being that water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and that its rate of depletion (and pollution) are incompatible with life.  As the artist points out in a 113-picture monograph published in conjunction with this show: mankind survived thousands of years without oil; but without water, a human can’t last for more than a few hours or days.
Xiaolangdi Dam #2, 2011, Yellow River, Henan Province, China

The point was driven home, he says, by an incident in a bar in Adelaide, related to him by a photojournalist. “He ordered a beer and a glass of water, finished his beer, paid the bill and was about to leave when the bartender stopped him and instructed him to finish his glass of water.  Suddenly water took on a new meaning for me.” 

To distill that meaning into visceral imagery, the artist departed from his usual modus operandi.  Instead of utilizing terrestrial-based viewpoints, he shot this series entirely from the air, using planes, helicopters and various mechanical devices to capture bird’s-eye views of farms, subdivisions, dams, deltas and polar icecaps.  The results are both similar — and markedly different — from what we’ve seen from Burtynsky in the past.  His approach remains rigorously journalistic, his tone that of a crusader whose arguments acquire strength through the sheer accumulation of evidence.  Still, Burtynsky has always embraced poetic possibilities, and with his arsenal of technical skills, he brings more of them to the fore in Water than ever before, owing, in part, to the lyrical nature of the subject.  The results include some of the most abstract pictures of his career – pictures that he says reference “some of my favorite painters, including Casper David Friedrich, Jean Dubuffet, David Shapiro and Richard Diebenkorn.”   
While photography’s attempts to align itself with painting have been much overblown in recent years, Burtynsky’s photos, like those of his closest counterpart, David Maisel, go a long way toward blurring the differences; so much, in fact, that in several instances, you may wonder if the process by which Burtynsky’s images arrive on paper is actually photographic.  By that, I’m not suggesting that any of the 12 pictures on view can be mistaken for paintings; only that Burtynsky pushes imaging and printmaking to a new level: on the one hand, to higher level of clarity, and on the other to an almost 19th-century level of mystery and murkiness, a kind digitally enhanced Pictorialism.  
Rice Terraces #2, 2012, Western Yunnan Province, China 
We see the first in his shot of terraced rice paddies in China.  The area, I’m guessing, measures a couple square miles.  Burtynsky flattens this landscape to such an extent that what we see in the foreground resembles a cubist assemblage of liquified mirrors: planes of light set at different angles.  In it we can discern remarkable details: figures, stones, even individual stalks of rice pushing up out of the ground.  It can be taken a face value, as an abstract composition or “navigated” as a physical landscape, depending on where you stand. Xianolangdi Dam # 2, recorded on the Yellow River in Henan Province, shows a cloud of muddy spray that resembles an enlarged detail of an Albert Pinkham Ryder seascape, all turbulence and brute force.  Dryland Farming # 1, taken in Spain, combines both preternatural clarity and total abstraction: silvery shapes set against a charcoal gray ground.  Their origin, were it not identified, would be unknowable.  The picture could have just as easily been captured with a microscope as with a medium-format Hasselblad camera, Burtynsky’s tool of choice.  Its equal for pure beauty is a shot of the Colorado River Delta made in Mexico.  From the river’s main channel sprout a network of branching arteries.  The effect is that of a forest embedded in ice.  
Reservation/Suburb, 2011, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

Despite the lean toward abstraction in this series, Burtynsky doesn’t relinquish the role of documentarian.  Reservation/Suburb, from Scottsdale, Arizona, shows two sides of a highway.  On one side we see the fruits of irrigation: houses with tile roofs and pools.  On the other: raw desert.  The picture is divided precisely in half, and topped by a blue horizon.  By itself, it tells everything you need to know about water’s relationship to civilization. 

The question that hangs over Burtynsky’s enterprise, and that of all activist artists, is whether such arguments have the power to effect lasting change in time to make a difference.  Preaching to the converted is one thing; selling your story to those who can actually do something is quite another.  In California, where water wars are never-ending, Water’s appearance here, even in truncated form, is certainly a welcome event; more so still, I imagine, in New Orleans where concurrent, full-scale exhibitions, at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center, run through January 19, 2014.  
As Burtynsky writes: “When disrupted from its natural course there are always winners and losers.  The moment water cannot find its own way back to the ocean or to be absorbed by the ground, we are changing the landscape.  When a stream or river is diverted, all life downstream is affected and remains altered until water returns.  Insects, plants, frogs, the salamanders, and the countless other creatures, including people, have paid an enormous price because of our voracious appetite for water – and what we do to the earth while getting at it.”
Edward Burtynsky:“Water” @ Rena Bransten Gallery through December 14, 2013.  

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