An Artful Environmental Impact Statement - 01-15-2011, 11:14 AM
An Artful Environmental Impact Statement
By ROBERTA SMITH
The vivid color photographs of J. Henry Fair lead an uneasy double life as potent records of environmental pollution and as ersatz evocations of abstract painting. This makes “Abstraction of Destruction,” his exhibition at the Gerald Peters Gallery, a strange battle between medium and message, between harsh truths and trite, generic beauty.
In one way these views of unnatural disasters belong to the great tradition of photojournalistic muckraking; the word could not be more appropriate in this context.
Mr. Fair takes his photographs from airplanes, and occasionally helicopters, often capturing sights deliberately hidden from public view. His subjects include environmental degradation perpetuated on a regular, usually daily basis by paper mills, fertilizer factories, power plants, coal mining operations and oil companies. They include the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Not only does the airplane provide access to restricted areas, it also makes possible panoramic vistas that convey the frightening scale of the destruction, creating the feeling that humankind has wrought its own form of irreversible natural catastrophe. In these vistas you can almost literally watch the poison spread across vast areas of land and sea, creating stains and patterns in a startling palette of deathly grays, lurid rusts and chemical greens and blues. But there is also a reductive side to this process: the expanses of color and texture in Mr. Fair’s pictures often bring to mind slick, printed versions of Abstract Expressionist painting.
These images constitute a kind of toxic sublime. They are most shocking in “The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis,” a book of Mr. Fair’s photographs scheduled for release next month by powerHouse Books. In the book the sights of things like the white, flowerlike aerating ponds of a paper mill — which affect the water table for miles around — provide visceral testimony to the monumental despoiling of the planet. Thanks partly to straightforward, detailed captions, the images’ communicative power and visual force are held in balance. That they look oddly ravishing does not obscure the ravaging they depict.
But it is a different story at the gallery. The main problem — as the show’s corny title indicates — is that the gallery images seem to have been selected mainly for their abstract impact. While there is considerable overlap between the book and the show, the images in the gallery depict far less often — almost not at all — the factories, smokestacks and earthmovers that do the damage or even the dikes that often contain the sludgy refuse. (Perhaps they will reappear in the images chosen for an exhibition of Mr. Fair’s work opening at Cooper Union on Thursday.)
Instead we see mostly effluvia of gorgeous color that bring to mind the painterly strategies of Abstract Expressionists like Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still and countless followers. This focus reworks ground — albeit with bright colors and large prints — already broken by photographers like Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. They proved over a half-century ago that they could find motifs in the real world similar to those created by their Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, as is currently demonstrated by the juxtaposition of their work in “Abstract Expressionist New York” at the Museum of Modern Art.
In certain images the sheer unnaturalness of the color sets off alarms, as with the lime-green water in a waste pond for a herbicide manufacturer in Luling, La. Here and in many other cases the colors seem too intense and artificial — or arty — to be good for the earth.
Elsewhere a certain fuzziness eliminates detail and makes the scale of the images — and thus the extent of the damage — ambiguous. Sometimes we might almost be looking at luscious expanses of paint poured over a rough surface, as in the field of royal blue bisected by a single vein of red in a photograph of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
In “Coal Slurry,” taken above Kayford Mountain, W.Va., in 2005, it is hard to tell if the river of white and gray waste running town a crenellated slope is several hundred yards long or several miles. There is a clearer sense of scale to a different image, taken above an aluminum plant in Darrow, La., where white foam flows through dry waste into an area submerged in water; both are tinted shades of dark red by bauxite, the ore that yields aluminum.
Mr. Fair’s presentation at Gerald Peters is shot through with ambivalence about the relative value of art and documentary. The desire that the images be seen as art seems implicit in the trivializing titles (nowhere evident in the book) that Mr. Fair has added to the images on view, even though the labels go on to provide more factual details. For example the sinister bauxite landscape described above, one of the most powerful images in the show, is unfortunately titled “Expectoration.”
“Lightning Rods” pictures a holding tank’s coagulated orange liquid and the metal walkway jutting over it at an oil-sands upgrader plant in northern Canada. The fact that one of these plants caught fire this month doesn’t improve the word choice.
Too often — minus the telltale details that provide a sense of scale and also implicate human actions — the images read first and foremost as slick jokes about painting. They evoke the work that usually falls on what might be generously called art’s lightweight side, from Bouguereau’s academic nudes to Dale Chihuly glass sculptures.
Mr. Fair’s most artistically powerful images are the most concrete, conveying as clearly as possible what is going on. In these destruction is not at all abstract; information and form work together, to devastating effect.
“J. Henry Fair: Abstraction of Destruction” runs through Feb. 11 at the Gerald Peters Gallery, 24 East 78th Street, Manhattan; (212) 628-9760, gpgallery.com.
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