Edward Burtynsky talk: notes


Join us tonight at 7 o’clock for a Visiting Artist Talk with the Los Angeles sculptor and painter Hannah Greely, who generously stepped in after the original participants fell ill. Next week we’ll have the pleasure of listening to the installation artist Zarouhie Abdalian. For now, we’ll jot down some notes from last Wednesday’s evening with Edward Burtynsky, whose Oil series is, as you know, on display at the Barrick until January 14 .

  • he remembers taking nature photographs as a boy in Canada. He was about ten years old. Observing the flattening of the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image, he thought, It changes. 
  • growing up in Canada made him acutely aware of the natural world. So much of the nation is covered by undeveloped land – “chaotic space.”
  • nature is more intricate than a city. It has incredible detail. Somewhere in that chaos there’s a picture that should always have been a picture. A photographer looks for the place where the picture comes together. Framing is vital. Six inches either way changes things.
  • at university he began using a large format camera
  • he financed his career by opening a photo processing lab. The experience and knowledge that he gained by printing photographs professionally “hands-on” for fifteen years, was “key” to the work he was doing.
  • approaching railway lines running along the sides of steep cuttings, he consciously shot them in a non-heroic way, “flat on.” (Railcuts, 1985.)
  • in the past we have had the natural sublime. He was struck by “the industrial sublime.” The superhuman scale of a copper mine near Salt Lake City. We have created the things that dwarf us.
  • shows us a photograph of a mine in Chile. Points to something that looks invisibly tiny against the scale of the hole. Says it is a bus. So much ore was exported from this mine that each person in the room probably interacts with it at least once per day, he assumes.
  • the deep mines … we have built “inverted skyscrapers.”
  • he wouldn’t have started the Oil project if he hadn’t already tackled the scale of China. He shows us photographs of the Three Gorges Dam. It’s so large that they measured a wobble in the rotation of the earth while the Dam was filling.
  • a huge field of pump jacks in the California desert. (Oil Fields #19ab, Belridge, California, USA, 2003.) An erie landscape, he says. No people. No birdsong. The repetitious squeaking of the jacks.
  •  he had been following the Oil project for years before it took him to the SOCAR fields near Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Until then he hadn’t really seen oil, he said. He had photographed tankers, pipes, machinery, but the liquid itself was always inside those things, not exposed.  It was “like blood: if you see it, something’s wrong.” Now he saw it lying in pools on the ground; now he could use the reflective qualities of the oil surface in his images.
  • he was inspired to photograph the tire pile in California (e.g., Oxford Tire Pile #9ab, Westley, California, USA, 1999) by John McPhee’s 1993 New Yorker article, Duty of Care. He contacted the author, who connected him to the owner of the pile.
  • the people dismantling obsolete oil tankers in Bangladesh were dragging the hulks ashore with winches salvaged from the ships themselves. Handheld blowtorches. They were being paid one dollar a day for an eight-hour day.
  • he has used a number of methods to lift himself into the air to take his photographs. He prefers a helicopter with the door off. Since 2010 he has been using drones. He worked with a company in Seattle to stabilize his Hasselblad in the air and beam a signal to the ground so that he could control the shot.
  • he used to use 8 x 10 film. Digital helps: you lose so many shots with film. Currently working with 1000 megapixel imagery.
  • nitrate loadings in the water systems are “the worst thing we’re doing [to the environment] right now.”


The image at the top of this post is an installation shot of Edward Burtynsky: Oil at the Marjorie Barrick Museum, taken by UNLV Photo Services / R. Marsh Stacks.


Visiting Artist: Mike Calway-Fagen; notes


This evening’s Visiting Artist talk by Aram Moshayedi and Shahryar Nashat has been rescheduled due to illness. It will take place next Thursday at 7pm, replacing Yunhee Min. Min will not be speaking. Until then, here are the notes from last week’s talk by Mike Calway-Fagen.

  • “We all share ‘the body’ in common, a site for making meaning.”
  • the skin is a barrier, an armor, a sensual direct contact point with the world
  • he shows us a picture of the following words along with photographs of rocklike fragments and a rope barrier: ‘Improvisational thresholds. Barriers. Liminality. Contingencies. Provisional empathy. Latency.’
  • he plays a clip of the British ventriloquist Nina Conti at the Royal Albert Hall. By the end of the video Conti has transferred the ‘source’ of her performance voice from a monkey puppet into her own body. Calway-Fagen says that he likes to watch the way she traces the flow of energy between human and object. “The moment when the unliving becomes the living.”
  • a picture of the characters from Spaceballs breaking the fourth wall.
  • a Saturday Night Live clip of actors breaking character and cracking up. The moment of vulnerability.
  • Teaching as an extension of studio work — a process of engagement, experience, encounter, and play.
  • a list of instructions from his class on Radical Empathy, e.g., Three minute observation of an animal followed by Three minutes being observed by an animal. In other instructions the word animal is replaced by mirror, object, and so on.
  • he shares information about Chang and Eng Bunker (1811 – 1874), famous conjoined twins. The body as sculpture and “a strange kind of sharing.” The twins’ furniture, specially adapted to their needs, constituted its own genre of uncanny sculpture.
  • Antiques Roadshow is “like object porn.”
  • comedy – Whose Line Is It Anyway? — the  serious adult becomes irreverent, silly, undignified, playful. Here adulthood is, in a sense, being ‘queered.’ (Also: skateboarders.)
  • adults rely on their eyes. Children use hands, mouth, everything.
  • kidney stones: “a geological formation that the body produces.”
  • the 2008 Canadian thriller Pontypool. People infected by a self-generated outside agent: language.
  • language. What does grapefruit juice taste like? What is ‘sour’?
  • Authors. Maggie Nelson. Rebecca Solnit.
  • Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs.
  • he quotes Bruno Latour: “Things don’t exists without being full of people.” He responds: “People don’t exist without being full of things.”
  • when we discovered a system of measuring time … this is the moment when we became cyborgs.
  • “I think what underpins much of the world is mortality and a defiance of mortality.”

Visiting Artist Talk: Corin Hewitt: notes


Welcome to another set of notes from UNLV’s Visiting Artist talks. Tonight we’ll have Mike Calway-Fagen speaking in our auditorium at seven after the reception for his new one-person show, Banana Strings, at the Donna Beam, but for now we offer a sample of last’s week’s speaker, Corin Hewitt.

  • “I feel as artists we try to find the questions that are most powerful for us and try to dwell inside them.”
  • his parents were artists. His mother designs open-ended toy systems for children. His father was a painter: part of the Anonima Group. Hewitt’s grandmother, knitting during TV shows, would switch the color of her yarn during ad breaks. She knitted the shows.
  • when he was young his father showed him Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of FogThe child said it was a frustrating image. You’d climbed up the mountain and someone else was standing in the way. His father told him this was an interesting reaction. (Many years later Hewitt used his own clothes to make a sculpture of a Wanderer figure holding a broom like a cane on a mountain range of textile.)
  • in high school he was repelled by the subjectivity of art & decided to become a constitutional lawyer
  • did not become a constitutional lawyer. Took a year off from undergrad, contacted a professional artist whose work had impressed him, and offered to work in his studio for free. The artist was Matthew Barney, then twenty-three. Hewitt recommends this kind of voluntary intern experience to beginning artists. (Caveat: make sure your budget can cover it.)
  • deaths in his family. He brought the subject of death into his work. One’s own past as subject matter. It’s the best place to look for ambiguities and tensions.
  • he was making work and receiving commissions, but felt trapped in his practice. To dislodge himself he went to grad school. Bard College. Nancy Shaver, who teaches there: “brilliant, stubborn.” She came to his studio and looked at his work. “She said, Everything you’ve shown me is passive.”
  • he wanted to activate his work. He would try to stop working towards a result. Instead he would find the work while he was making it.
  • he wanted a material that would change so quickly that he couldn’t predetermine the outcome. How to free yourself from feeling in control? He cut a corner off the room where he was working so that people could look in.
  • what about food? fire? cooking? He planned stage-like settings where he could work with food. Composting is a way of folding things together. He bit a peach and quickly made a rough plasticine model, then photographed it. A comparison between food and photography. Worms, eating compost: think of a photograph being processed — the image/food going through a procedure.
  •  he fed the photographs of food into a computer program: a “plaid generator.” It invented a plaid pattern out of the colors.
  • in the middle of this uncontrolled activity the camera was a way to pause, take a quick shot: move on.
  • to make money he worked inside the walls of apartment buildings. A plumber. Left packages of autobiographical photographs and materials inside the walls for people to find in the future. The interiors of walls appeared in his work.
  • police signs (as in The Third Station, 2014) introduce “the pressure of attention.”
  • the three-dimensional spaces he works inside can fold up like theater sets. “It’s theater, you know, too.”
  • he advises artists in the audience to look outside galleries and museums for ways to show their work. He uses the example of a man-sized sculpture he once made. He approached the owner of a building and asked if he could display this figure in the air shaft. The owner agreed. Later he placed the same sculpture inside a silo in Vermont. (He shows us a photograph of the marble figure staring out of the silo with snow on its head.)
  • “I feel I don’t know how to make metaphor outside the way I’m currently living.”

Visiting Artist Talk: Jim Lee: notes



Here are a few notes we wrote down during last Thursday’s talk by the New York painter Jim Lee. Tonight at seven in the auditorium we’ll hear from UNLV’s most recent Visiting Artist, Corin Hewitt.

  • “I’m a studio rat. That’s basically it.”
  • as a teenager in a small town (Berrien Springs, Michigan) he wanted to be an artist and live in New York City when he grew up, like Larry Rivers. He remembers having this thought very clearly when he was fourteen. The local library stocked a book about Rivers.
  • His work (he says) is about randomness, about chance – ideas from multiple sources coming together and working “just once.” He carries out the lecture by letting his website bring up images at random. Then he talks about them.
  • a photograph of his favorite bar, the Montero.
  • a photograph of someone else’s handmade sign, Yard + Knife Sale.
  • a photograph of a sign above the toilet in an apartment he rented: Please be Clean When You Do It. He used the same phrase as the title of a show at Nicelle Beauchene in 2013.
  • “I don’t know if I even believe in art school, because I don’t believe you can teach it.”
  • as an undergraduate at Southwestern Michigan College he didn’t like working in a studio with other people around him. He would go outside.  He read about big city artists in magazines. “So what’s going on with this cat in Chicago, Julian Schnabel?” he muses, showing us an old photograph of Schnabel in swimming briefs striding through a garden.
  • Schnabel. Martin Kippenberger. Markus Lüpertz. Tommy White: “one of the most wonderful painters you’ll ever meet, and he’s nasty.”
  • a curator, admiring one of his student paintings, mistook a picture of a moose for a butterfly. At this point he says he decided to take more control of his imagery.
  • “The only thing I can control is getting into that studio every day and making work.”
  • he works on 17 + things at once “because I want to deprogram myself.” Says he hates the color yellow. Says he makes a yellow painting every day. Painting with yellow is another way to deprogram himself. The work he makes “has to be relevant to me.” He doesn’t set agendas, he says: he makes the work he feels he has to make.
  • “I try to create a studio for myself where I’m sort of angry.” It needs to be messy and disruptive. Disruption loosens him up. He plays music, typically lo-fi rock. The Dirtbombs. Led Zeppelin. Sonic Youth. “I’ll listen to anything on repeat for hours, for days, it’s like a hostage situation.”
  • has multiple studios. Sometimes he’ll rent a place for a few months, just to be in a new space.
  • “As a dumb painter I don’t want to know things.” Someone in the audience asks what he means by “dumb.” He tells them that it means he wants to be surprised. He doesn’t want to be guessing at the possibilities of the work.
  • he recommends residencies. To be surrounded by knowledgeable, likeminded people.
  • he believes drawing is important. “Because I like to make things I don’t understand.”
  • he doesn’t have a hierarchy of materials. Dirt or paint, both are valuable.
  • he wonders if he was a better painter 10 – 15 years ago, when he wasn’t represented by a gallery.  He was “meaner, rougher.” He didn’t have to speculate about other people’s expectations. (Words like mean, rough, and nasty, are terms of praise throughout Lee’s talk.)
  • “The studio is where the work works.” Removing a painting from the studio and hanging it in a gallery makes it look unnatural.
  • Being in a room with paintings “is always agitating to me. I want them [his works] barely alive. I’m always trying to slow the paintings down.”