In south Louisiana, we know a thing or two about water. Not only are we surrounded by it, the air we breathe is often permeated with it, so our relationship with water is intimate. But intimate relationships often have elements of surprise, and while Edward Burtynsky's photographs, which occupy two floors of gallery space at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), are often too spectacular to be truly intimate, they do pack a tsunami of surprises. His sweeping amphibious landscapes, whether all natural or shaped by human intervention, can be startlingly abstract, and if the proliferation of large-scale photographs in recent years has already shown us how painterly such images can be, many of Burtynsky's works bear a striking resemblance to abstract canvases.
Others reflect a more predictable documentary perspective, but even these can be boldly graphic. A view of water blasting from the massive concrete fastnesses of a Chinese dam is as extravagantly dramatic as any 19th-century romantic vision of Niagara Falls, only much more monumental. Similarly, Stepwell #4, a look into an excavation pit in India, suggests an inverted ziggurat, or maybe a maddening M.C. Escher drawing of staircases looping back infinitely upon themselves. Such ground-level vistas are far outnumbered by aerial shots like Navajo Reservation/Suburb, a bird's eye view of the meandering sprawl of a Phoenix, Ariz., suburb divided from a vast empty desert at the fringe of the Navajo nation by an infinitely long, straight border. Pivot Irrigation #1, High Plains, Texas, looks strikingly like an early 1930s graphics experiment by the proto-modernist Bauhaus group, and Thjorsa River #1, Iceland (pictured), suggests an especially gorgeous Dorothea Tanning surrealist painting.
Organized by New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) photography curator Russell Lord, Water is a collaborative production of NOMA and the CAC. Similar Burtynsky works can be seen in a separate exhibition at the Arthur Roger Gallery. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT