THE WEDGE — Kelly O’Brien’s exhibition of new sculptures and paintings at Soo Visual Arts Center comes with its own clowder of critics: small oil portraits of cats that seem to snarl and sneer at the work on the walls.
Are they appalled at O’Brien’s surprising use of common, garish materials, like Spandex and nylon, to evoke the bold strokes of Abstract Expressionism? Are they snottily resentful that freewheeling Internet culture is being dragged into an art gallery?
Whatever. O’Brien’s highbrow-lowbrow waggle in “Kulture High” is smart and entertaining, showcasing sophisticated work with the sparkle of Pop.
A Buffalo, N.Y., native, O’Brien earned her masters in fine art at Georgia State University and, after launching her career in Atlanta, moved to Minneapolis. In addition to teaching at University of Wisconsin–Stout, she’s an advisor to MFA students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Many of the “Kulture High” pieces are colorful, elastic fabrics stretched over wood frames, sometimes stuffed with more material to create odd bulges, like thick thighs contained inside too-small biker shorts. O’Brien recently won one of eight 2015 McKnight Visual Artist Fellowships, and it will be fascinating to see what comes of it.
Showing concurrently at SooVAC is “Black and Yellow,” two bodies of work by Donald Morgan, an assistant professor of art at the University of Oregon. Consisting of mainly sculpture but also some paintings, Morgan’s work pares familiar imagery down to its clean-lined essentials.
Child-scaled sculptures constructed of wood covered in a black laminate — a flag, fortifications, an executioner’s hood — evoke war or maybe war play, as they’re riddled in either spyholes or bullet holes.
In the other half of “Black and Yellow,” Morgan plays with clichés from the western genre, including a grim noose in discordantly cheery yellow, a color that he also uses in a painting of broken windows and for a rack holding a stainless steel cowboy hat. There’s an odd, frozen feeling to the work, as if the cowboy movie is forever on pause just before the big shootout.
“Black and Yellow” and “Kulture High”
When: Through July 18
Where: 2909 Bryant Ave. S., Suite 101
Info: soovac.org, 871-2263
Edward Burtynsky’s water world
Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Weinstein Gallery, Minneapolis / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
EAST HARRIET — Look out your plane window on a flight out West and you’ll see green circles of irrigated crops dotting the landscape below, as perfectly round as flying saucers and nearly as alien to the dry, dusty High Plains.
Invented in the middle of the last century and refined over decades, center-pivot irrigation technology allowed farmers to bring millions of acres of land into cultivation, but it also contributed to a significant increase in the use of groundwater for agriculture. Billions of gallons are withdrawn from aquifers to water crops each day — at a rate much faster than they can be replenished — and the amount tripled between 1950 and 2005, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
That makes them an ideal subject for Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who spent five globe-hopping years documenting humanity’s complex and increasingly fraught relationship with water, from China to Iceland to the American West. A selection of the painterly, poetic, large-format photographs is on display at the Weinstein Gallery through June 27.
Often shooting from inside low-flying airplanes and helicopters to squeeze acres of farm fields or long stretches of river delta into his viewfinder, Burtynsky turns horizon-less landscapes into gorgeous abstractions. A few pixel-sized rice farmers walk among the terraced paddy fields of hilly western Yunan Province, China, nearly invisible amid undulating pools of sky-reflecting water.
A thousand miles northwest in Henan Province, Burtynsky photographs the titanic Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River during its annual silt-washing operation, when the massive floodgates are opened to release millions of tons of built-up mud and sand from the reservoir. Clouds of yellow mist swirl high into the air, illustrating the tremendous forces the dam was built to control and harness.
It reminds us of the perilous trade-offs that come with these massive dams, wherever they’re built: historic landscapes and ecosystems given up for renewable energy and flood control.
The paradox of Burtynsky’s photos is that they manage a sublime beauty even when the environmental consequences of what they depict are frightening. Shot from almost directly overhead, a tailings pond outside a phosphate mine in Polk County, Florida, is creamy white sand crisscrossed with blue veins, like a piece of marble.
Burtynsky’s camera peers all the way down to the trash-strewn bottom of a dried up Indian stepwell. It’s a spectacular example of centuries-old engineering, like an inverted ziggurat, but revealed only because of drought.
“Edward Burtynsky: Water”
When: Through June 27
Where: Weinstein Gallery, 908 W. 46th St.
Info: weinstein-gallery.com, 822-1722