Steve Mumford traveled to Venice, Louisiana last spring to document the Deepwater Horizon calamity. Published in the September 2010 issue of Harper's Magazine, the resulting series is classic oil spill imagery, but in the unexpected genre of tourist art. These are pictures you might have purchased from a local artist on the boardwalk, or maybe would have captured yourself in a well-worn sketchbook. Either way, they both comfort and disturb me.
There is a quietness to these scenes that gives relief not only from the spill, but from the six months of glossy, high-resolution views at multiple scales and sites that have intensified it; views that return again and again to oil-coated pelicans -- dying and dead -- as a barometer of and catalyst for our collective horror. Mumford's birds inhabit a different Gulf Coast whose sweet spots are generated not from spectacle but sincerity. With the authenticity of the brushstroke, the painter depicts these creatures in a crisis mitigated by the seemingly transparent and spontaneous charms of the watercolor medium. Watercolor makes the human-technological response, from Coast Guard helicopters to plugged-in reporters, appear as pleasantly fluid as the sea. When the abnormality of the situation is discernible -- specifically, in the eye of the pelican being washed -- the humble postures of the surrounding figures and low-tech look of the cleaning equipment reassures us that wildlife rehab is good, honest work. The subsequent image of three cleaned birds continues to soothe, placing them amid merry red, green and yellow and close to clear running water. A concluding picture shows a pretty "oil-soaked coastline" in earthy browns and purples with a small gestural line of a bird flying low across the land.
Mumford has done this before, with the war in Iraq. His series in Harper's March 2005 issue rendered those grim events -- military attacks and imprisonment, for instance -- easy going, if not quite cheerful. I wonder about his gentle eye. I wonder what Iraqi civilians, U.S. soldiers and Gulf Coast pelicans stand to gain or lose from art that humanizes what we call inhuman and that which is other-than-human. Between disaster porn and disavowal, is there not another way to describe the lives of the injured?