Edward Burtynsky: Salt Pans @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against green walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are chromogenic color prints, made in 2016. The prints are shown in three sizes: 39×52 (in editions of 9), 48×64 (in editions of 6), and 59×78 (in editions of 3). A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Steidl (here). (Installation shots below.)

As a companion to this exhibit, a career survey show entitled Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements is also on view in two venues – the second gallery space at Howard Greenberg Gallery (here) and at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery (here). A monograph of this survey was recently published by Thames & Hudson (here).

Comments/Context: In an artistic career reaching all the way back to the early 1980s, Edward Burtynsky has consistently tested the limits of large scale grandiosity, showing us landscapes and aerial views of towering and often astonishing scope that deliberately oscillate between sublime beauty and environmental horror. From his pictures of factories and industrial farming to those of oil wells, rock quarries, and polluted waterways, he has placed a layer of mindful activism on top of traditional majesty, forcing us to reconcile the triumphs and consequences of human achievement with the glories and desecrations of the natural world.

In his newest photographs, Burtynsky offers a more muted and painterly approach to his signature ecologically-minded monumental landscapes, introducing a tighter theme and variation dedication to a single subject than we have typically seen in his work. His subject here is the salt pans of Gujarat, India, where rectangular drying pools are carved out of a harsh wasteland of dusty grey earth. This is industry taking place at the very edge of inhospitability, where workers are subject to extremes of isolation that appear almost dystopian or other worldly, at least from safety of the air. Valuable raw materials are being harvested from this barren desert, carving the desolate land into an ugly tangle of elemental blocks and black scratches.

As discouraging as this setting is, Burtynsky has largely made its realities into abstractions. Silvery polygons and rectangles float on a muddy grey ground, seeming to shift and shimmer like the layered browns of Cubist Braque and Picasso. Radiating from these central forms are various trenches and troughs, that from afar are reduced to the simplicity of etched lines, with repetitions creating stripes, mazes, and messy squiggles. And as movement increases in specific locations, the scenes take on rubbed quality, as though portions of the picture have been roughly erased. From this unforgiving moonscape, Burtynsky has drawn out painterly gesture, turning incisions, scars, and leaking earthly wounds into works built on pared down formal grace.

When seen in the context of the arc of Burtynsky’s artistic career, there is an understated subtlety to these compositions that we have never seen before. These pictures are neither bombastic in their sweeps of view nor eye popping in their patterns and repetitions – instead, they are almost humble in their reductive thinking. Having nearly reached the tipping point where majesty turns into caricature, he has smartly pivoted to a more intimate and delicate set of aesthetic ideas. While these pictures will perhaps mystify those who have preferred his most awe inspiring visual shouts, their hushed quality offers a dose of restrained nuance that has its own richness and depth.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced based on size. The 39×52 prints are $22000, the 48×64 prints are $30000, and the 59×78 prints are $50000. Burtynsky’s prints have become more reliably available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices at auction ranging between roughly $5000 and $100000.

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Read more about: Edward Burtynsky, Howard Greenberg Gallery, Steidl

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