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Mapping Petrochemical America

<ring, the Perlman Teaching Museum has ventured away from comfortable Andy Warhol-derivative exhibitions toward environmentalist art. “Petrochemical America,” a collaboration between photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff expands their 2010 book into a room full of humungous photographs and artistic graphs of the oil industry’s effects on a portion of Louisiana’s Mississippi River.

In order to provide background information on the artists, a table in the museum supports a couple of Misrach’s books that were in the Gould Library: I recommend “Goldengate,” a collection of photos of the famous San Francisco Bay area bridge taken from the same location every few days in the late 90s. Misrach’s style asserts itself in bay area photos; he has a tendency to capture mist and water in its most solid of moments. On the most characteristic San Francisco days, he arrests scenery for performing too typical the “blanket of fog” cliché.

Such beauty carries over into “Petrochemical America”- the majority of the installments are six-foot high photos of marshland and fenced-off toxic dumps, disturbingly still. Misrach captures a sickened bayou; a particularly memorable photo depicts an old southern mansion that was bought up by the Dow Chemical Corporation and the surrounding land. The old house stands behind a hazard-laden fence, swallowed by a corporatized future.

The exhibit is not all overbearing photo sheets and borrowed books; Misrach’s photos receive a downgrade with occasional heavy-handed super-impositions of colorful graphics and carcinogen data. Some of the collage pieces are ridiculous; Orff has a tendency to fetishize scientific charts and illustrations and mashes them up as if Photoshop 4 was released last month. “From the Earth to the Sky” samples dinosaur illustrations and sedimentary layers to foreground a wondrous absurdity–a mapped Mississippi river serving as the line to a graph of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Some cross media attempts do work, however–Orff’s Google Earth style maps appeal to the rationality of the non-scientist, which seems to be the underlying point of the exhibit. Another infographic piece, looking like something straight off Tumblr, represents the history of oil company mergers and fractures over a timeline, an impressively economical telling of a corporate America tale.

For those interested in the conception, design, and assembly of the project, a glass panel with working notes taped all over hangs in front of the photobook table. Aside from visually romanticizing collaborative projects in a manner perhaps intentionally reminiscent of a BP commercial, the installment absurdly satisfies the post-modern art viewer’s curiosity for a “behind the scenes” peek. Flow chart drafts, concept sketches, and even email printouts (with addresses insufficiently whited out, as if begging for visitors to contact the artists) plaster the precarious panel like paper maché.

Perhaps this was a nod toward stewardship of the environment always being a “work in progress”–at the very least, it makes you wonder whether artists really do everything beautifully, even down to outlining.

A minor inquiry: the whole project primarily focuses on “Cancer Alley,” a short segment of the Mississippi River between Louisiana’s Baton Rouge and New Orleans. If the Perlman Teaching Museum is interested in hyper-regionalized art exhibits, why not consider displaying a more local project? Our geographically diverse student body could do with a little more Minnesota awareness. Alternatively, the importance of concern for all parts of the nation could have been more clearly articulated in display literature. It might be prudent, also being neighbors of the Mississippi, to take ownership for all its length.

Conceptually, “Petrochemical America” scores big, applying art toward an environmental cause worthy of attention. Widespread petrochemical use in the US not only destroys local environments and jeopardizes the health of citizens in the area in which they are produced. Our atmosphere has been taking a major carbon dioxide hit from our collective habits. Additionally, the popularity of petrochemical based consumer goods and building materials has allowed them to be distributed across the nation. “Petrochemical America” pulls off a new progressive art trick; it renders cold, technical scientific data available (or imaginable) to the general un-scientific public, reminding us that even if we aren’t all scientists, pollution is a shared problem.

“Petrochemical America” will remain at the Perlman Teaching Museum in the Weitz Center for Creativity until May 4.

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