Birds in Oil and Watercolor

Curator's Note

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?


 The folksy look of these pieces is--as you say--comforting and disturbing. I wonder: If one didn't know the context of their creation, would a viewer necessarily realize a disaster is being depicted in them? And is that ethical? What was Mumford's intention?

I also think that stories covering bird cleaning -- or stray puppies adopted by US and Canadian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan -- serve to (may even be intended to) give the viewer a sense of control in an out of control situation. They serve to provide a small happy ending of sorts in the midst of a tidal wave of bad news. They serve to assure people that reform of humanity and their ways is possible--when in many cases there is much evidence to the contrary.

I find Mumford's depiction of these tragic scenes in such a soothing manner to be very challenging, asking us to really scrutinize both 'tourist' art and the conventional ways disasters and war are depicted to draw a limited number of emotions from the audience. Intriguing stuff, I will have to keep thinking about this one...

I found the juxtaposition of comforting imagery with the stark text in each picture striking.  To me, the text complicated the images and made them appear less comforting.  It is very matter-of-fact and evocative, especially because I viewed the images intertextually in the context of all images of the oil spill's effects, so to me, no text is closed.

Susan, I'm curious about Mumford's intentions too, which might be gleaned from a closer look at his other work and his 'Baghdad Journal':

I'm also curious about other responses to these images besides my own. No letters to the editor about them in this month's Harper's, unfortunately. But Holly, it's interesting to hear that the written text kept these images out of the comfort zone for you. I can certainly see that with respect to their informational content -- very sobering -- though less so with their hand-drawn form, which reminds me of postcard text ("Having a semi-great time!").

For concurrent images of oil-coated pelicans, check out the October 2010 issue of National Geographic: http://ngm/

The handwritten style of the text is part of the disjuncture to me, because it seems at odds with what the words are saying.  Even just the words "BP Oil Spill" written in the style of a chatty, superficial postcard are provocative.  Those three words are tied to a whole body of discourse that is the antithesis of the touristy style.  And some of the images, when viewed full-screen, are more jarring than they are when viewed in a smaller format; particularly the fifth one, "Oil Soaked Island," with its black, spider-like figures.  On the one hand, I'd be interested to know Mumford's intentions.  On the other hand, I'm not sure that matters so much (to me, at least) because of the polysemic nature of such pictures and text.

Interesting example, fascinating post and discussion!

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