The Cleveland Museum of Art is presenting two exhibits to highlight the impact of human behavior on the environment in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the last Cuyahoga River fire.

“Water: Edward Burtynsky” is a photography exhibit that features 13 large-scale color photographs that highlight water and its usage from different locations around the world. “Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning” features three monumental pieces made with gunpowder by this famous Chinese artist.

“Water: Edward Burtynsky” takes a little time to orient yourself to when you first walk into the gallery. The pieces are all large scale and remarkably detailed. They are full of colors and layers and, at first glance, you might not be sure if you are looking at a painting, collage or photograph.

The artist spent five years exploring the ways in which we redirect and control water. To capture the enormous scale of these systems, Burtynsky flew in different types of aircraft and shot pictures from construction lifts. He also used drones equipped with specially designed equipment that he was able to operate remotely.

The pieces highlight the impressive impact and abilities of humanity to change the way water moves and flows on the planet. The scale and the way in which the places and scenes are captured render the locations as something akin to abstract artwork or as perhaps the documentation of giant earthen art projects.

“Pivot Irrigation/Suburb, South of Yuma, Arizona, USA” is a 2011 photo of an industrial-scale agricultural farm using pivot irrigation. This type of irrigation uses an extended arm that that rotates around a central point creating a circular plot that can be as large as a mile in diameter.

This image features homes laid outside a square land area with the irrigation plots nearby. The resulting image of squares and circles could also be a painter's study in shape and color as they shift from desert brown to a lush deep green.

“Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning” features three large-scale drawings that are made using a mixture of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter — otherwise known as gunpowder. The exhibit examines humanity's relationship with nature and the diminishing resources of water.

An accompanying video is also on display, highlighting the process and creation of “Cuyahoga River Lightning: Drawing for the Cleveland Museum of Art,” which is also the largest work on display in the show and is where the exhibit's name is derived.

For this work, Cai used an aerial photo of the river from the bend of where it burned in 1969 to where it feeds into Lake Erie as the focal point of the drawing. Cai compares the flow and health of the river to the life energy needed for Cleveland to prosper and thrive.

This is an expressive work, not only in how it was created but in how the artist has directed the gunpowder across the canvas. The image is blurry and ghostlike and has the feel of a memory or map of a historic battle with a rudimentary type of photography.

“Last Carnival” is a 2017 gunpowder on canvas that highlights the artist's use of colored gunpowder in his work.

The imagery in the drawing was inspired by paintings Cai studied at the Prado in Madrid. In this drawing, cherubs fly above a small blue lake that is surround by wild animals. The lake is much too small to sustain all the animals that surround it.

“The animals and cherubs, representative of human society, continue to mate, play and party while the planet disintegrates and the water supply decreases,” states the didactic information that accompanies this piece.

Like all of the drawings included here, this work has a sense of outward movement that is clearly a condition of how the pieces were made. It is important to note, though, that the artist is using years of learned skill to create these canvases, which are permanent records of detailed and planned ideas and actions that are transformed in a two-dimensional plane through using gunpowder as a medium.

Both exhibits use scale and color to grab your attention and pull your eyes around the included compositions. They also relate important thoughts and ideas about the state of our planet and its water supply and do so in a meaningful and ultimately interesting and relatable ways.

They are well worth a drive to Cleveland for an opportunity to ponder and study their meaning and impact.

 

Contact Anderson Turner at haturner3@gmail.com.