If you’re not familiar with the work of Edward Burtynsky in documenting the industrial defacement of the planet, you’d be forgiven for believing that the haunting works in this show about our dependence on oil depict only fictional places. In a diptych of Belridge, California, dozens of identical derricks populate a vast, colorless plain—devoid, it appears, of any human presence; the vision resembles one of those bleak sci-fi futures, a pallid world dominated by machines tirelessly working to support their own existence. Likewise, in Azerbaijan’s Baku, the skeletons of abandoned drilling rigs, shot under a forbidding sky, suggest apocalyptic aftermath. Then there’s Burtynsky’s view of the I-5 corridor, looking west toward L.A.’s distant spikes—a gray river flowing through a grid of unremarkable development so impossibly wide and dense that it might be a backdrop for Blade Runner.
In his mastery of the camera, Burtynsky brings rich textures, exquisite nuances of color, and a kind of supernatural clarity to his wide-angle, deep-focus shots, making evident the immense scales of his subjects, both visual and environmental. Waste and excess become frighteningly beautiful.
In the back room, a series of works taken in Australia demonstrates Burtynsky’s eye for painterly forms and contrasts. Aerial shots of mining operations near the white expanse of the salty Lake Lefroy are lovely near-abstractions, while a view of the spiraling descent into Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit, where the rocky walls leech eerie shades of red, brings to mind Dante’s circles of Hell. So much of Burtynsky’s work makes you shudder.
Films by Robert Morris
In his philosophic writings promoting minimalism, Robert Morris has often insisted on the de-personalization of the artist, but, luckily for us, he hasn’t always adhered to his theories. His rarely screened films, given plenty of space in the maze of rooms here, offer up a surprisingly intimate conceptualism.
Several black-and-white works from 1969 are particularly endearing. In Mirror, the artist himself holds a large reflective surface and walks backward, facing the camera, through a snow-covered field. The surrounding trees and sky appear in the mirror as a frame within a frame, and, as Morris retreats, he seems to be stealing, magically, a piece of the landscape. For Wisconsin, Morris directed a large group of students to run, wander, collide, and form piles in certain patterns on another snowy field. Though their movements hint at mass hysteria, mass hypnosis, and, when they collapse in sequence, mass murder, the film ultimately celebrates the joy of participation. In line with his theories, Morris remained distant from Slow Motion (literally, by phoning in directions), but this film explores an odd and private sensuality, featuring, in grainy slo-mo, the naked torso of a beefcake guy pressing himself against a glass-panel door.
On the opposite extreme is the vaguely sinister Gas Station (1969), which presents (in color) two views of the same location, one in wide-angle, the other from a telephoto lens. The juxtaposition of the frames, slightly out of synch, suggests the French New Wave’s fragmented narratives, but in the calm, close-up pans, you can’t help but think of an assassin’s surveillance, surely on everyone’s mind that year. In his sculptures, Morris has never been exactly solicitous of the viewer’s engagement, but as a filmmaker, he comes pretty close. Hunter College Art Gallery, 450 W 41st St, 212-772-4991. Through November 21
Justine Cooper: ‘Living in Sim’
Crash-test dummies had their moment in the limelight, so why not medical mannequins? Justine Cooper, along with a team of writers, has constructed a timely mixed-media world of absurdist health care by turning these life-size dolls—used by hospitals to train doctors and nurses—into stars of Indemnity General, a soap opera appearing on livinginsim.com. It’s a little like Saturday Night Live mixing it up with high art. Cooper’s photographs, which refer to classical paintings, touch on real hospital horror, but never stray far from comedy. The funniest piece here is a music video, with fine Barry Manilow mimicry, that features a series of apologies to the mannequins, including, “I’m sorry for gouging out your eye . . . I’m sorry for leaving you dead on the table.” Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, 511 W 25th St, 212-675-2966. Through December 31