Environmental Impact at the Hilliard University Art Museum

The majesty of our planet—its sublime beauty, biological diversity, and ability to instigate powerful modes of metaphysical reflection within its human inhabitants—remains a constant motif in the history of Western art. The paintings of Claude Lorrain, Rembrandt, Caspar David Friedrich, and George Inness are enduring reminders of the aesthetic richness of the genre. The sensual pleasures that the natural world incites and the darker forces undulating beneath the lush meditations of flora and fauna reveal humankind’s primitive desire for mastery over the natural world. In the 21st century—an era irrevocably marked by the catastrophic effects of human-driven climate change and environmental devastation—many contemporary artists have reclaimed certain Romantic traditions and descriptions of nature as a way to make sense of the violence enacted by industrial interference with the natural world.[1] Curator David J. Wagner’s exhibition Environmental Impact, currently on display at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana, gathers a diverse selection of artists who confront the urgent threat of climate change. By inspiring new forms of aesthetic contemplation that weigh the consequences of environmental violence, Environmental Impact works to intensify and activate a dialogue between viewer and image in order to render ambiguous society’s passive consumption of images of environmental destruction.[2]

Edward Burtynsky. Oxford Tire Pile #2, Westley, California. 1999. Chromogenic color print. 40 x 50 inches. Image courtesy of Tom Thomsen Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada.

Edward Burtynsky. Oxford Tire Pile #2, Westley, California, 1999; chromogenic color print; 40 x 50 in. Courtesy of Tom Thomsen Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada.

In order to sustain a high pitch of awareness, the vast majority of the works present a more literal understanding of environmental exploitation and damage, with photography and styles of realism forming the core of this exhibition; it is a reminder of the crucial role documentary processes have in bearing witness to the devastating consequences of ecological destruction. Edward Burtynsky’s photographic oeuvre of landscapes devastated by the industrial waste of capitalism is represented most powerfully by Oxford Tire Pile #2, Westley, California (1999)—an ominous example of toxic waste and scorched earth hidden in plain sight in small towns across the United States. The claustrophobic pilings deconstruct the language of minimalism and its foundation in repetition into disturbing visual reminders of the expanse and physical reality of human waste. And yet the dramatic scale and overwhelming visual richness of the image still captures something of the terrifying sublime at work in nature and industry. The image is lyrical and seductive despite its proximity to more disturbing works that proclaim the ruinous effects and fatal consequences of human progress. Burtynsky constructs a world in which an uncountable field of discarded tires might have a rightful place in the world, aestheticized and purposeful, asking us as viewers to think hard about the role of art in addressing societal problems. Does aesthetic mediation null the painful truths and harsh realities of environmental issues, and if so, does this speak to art’s powerlessness or the deflation of our ability to be politicized through images?

Guy Harvey. Gulf Life-Brown Pelican (Gulf Oil Spill). 2010. Watercolors. 31.625 x 28.625 inches. Image courtesy of Guy Harvey.

Guy Harvey. Gulf Life-Brown Pelican (Gulf Oil Spill), 2010; watercolors; 31.625 x 28.625 in. Courtesy of Guy Harvey.

To assemble this exhibition in Louisiana—a southeastern state that lives with the most extreme effects of rising sea levels, rapid coastal degeneration, decreased water availability, extreme heat events and their attendant crop failures, and natural disasters—is a bold, even provocative gesture as the state continues to depend economically and culturally on the oil and gas industries. A stream of recent lawsuits and the announcement by BP Oil this week of their agreement to pay a record environmental fine of $18.7 billion—settling legal actions brought on by the fatal 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which sent 4.2 million barrels of oil into the ocean over 87 days—signal the complex reality of demanding corporate responsibility for ecosystem damage. Judge Carl Barbier, whose oversight of the complicated legal case between BP, the United States government, and several Gulf states, ruled that BP had been “grossly negligent” in its handling of the well, and has demanded $7.1 billion in fines for natural-resource damages and $5.5 billion for Clean Water Act violations.[3] In a statement to the press, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg stated that “with this agreement we provide a path for closure for BP and the Gulf.” Yet for many Gulf residents, business owners, fishers, and environmentalists, the horrific effects of the spill are far from over as it becomes increasingly evident that marine life and indigenous animal populations have suffered irrevocably in the aftermath of the event.[4] Guy Harvey’s paintings point directly to the massacres of wildlife native to the Gulf coast region, with inky black drips of paint puncturing the finely detailed figures of the animals like bullet holes;, while Kent Ullberg’s memorials in bronze are haunting meditations on the loss of crucial ecological relationships in the aftermath of oil spills past.

As permits continue to be approved for off- and on-shore fracking wells in south Louisiana and the Gulf despite the vocal concerns of community leaders and political authorities, the timing and thematic expanse of this exhibition could not be more relevant to discourses and challenges outside the realm of contemporary art.[5] Calculating the human, animal, and communal costs of climate change, Environmental Impact participates in a new dialogue located within human (and indigenous) rights struggles, Earth law, and political ecology in order to describe a world where aesthetic beauty is no longer the defining feature of representations of our natural world.

Environmental Impact is on view at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana–Lafayette through August 8, 2015.


[1] For a compelling account of the history of American landscape painting and its effect on environmental rhetoric today, see Rachel Ziady DeLue’s book George Inness and the Science of Landscape (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[2] Many thanks must go to Dr. David J. Wagner for his kindness in answering all my questions and concerns during the writing of this article.

[3] See Dominic Rushe’s article “BP Set to Pay Largest Environmental Fine in U.S. History for Gulf Oil Spill,” The Guardian, July 2, 2015.

[4] Ibid., Rushe.

[5] See Samantha Page’s article “Exploratory Drilling Approved for Louisiana Wetlands,” ThinkProgress, on June 12, 2015.