There’s something incredibly dark and disconcerting about descending from the sky towards the Chicago landscape. Maybe it’s the logic of it, or the orderliness. The clean gleaming oval of Lake Michigan. A boat or two, bobbing far from shore, the rest of them moored or clinging to that fault line between solid land and fresh water responsible for so much of Chicago’s recreation, real estate, and remarkableness. Feet from the lake, the skyscrapers push their way to where they scrape, puncturing the interminable flatness as sharp as a shock-induced peak on an EKG. Here there’s settlement; there’s the city that tamed nature; here the landscape is not dirt and stone, it’s iron, stone, steel and the glass girds it all thick as foliage.
Taking in the graph-paper precision of Chicago’s pancake-flat Midwestern grid in a single glance out one of those small portholes in the side of a plane evokes a very particular sensation of endlessness and quiet dread in me. I peeked out that window on and off for five years and I think the comings and goings, the constant exposure to streets aligned with the magnetic confidence of a compass were responsible for my several year descent into what they sometimes call a “nervous flyer.”
This confusion of urban power with natural permanence — where the Willis Tower takes on intimations of the Alps — is what David Burdeny mines in a recent series directly exploring architecture entitled Sacred and Secular, which is on view through October 30 at Chicago’s David Weinberg Gallery.
The images that comprise Burdeny’s Sacred and Secular shrink cityscapes down to thin strips of buildings surrounded by a white, grey-green nowhere (perhaps it’s the frothy concrete city-foam that all urban centers are born of). Some of the photographs – “Uummannaq, Greenland” (2009), “New York City, USA” (2009), and “Dubai I, Persian Gulf UAE” (2009) — are so minimal they pull a city off the ground and out of context, and with these it becomes easy to mistake the distant, monocular objectivity that the crystal sharp large format enables.
Instead, the charring and scalding of all contextual landscape markers into oblivion takes a far-off shot of a city and redraws as though it were a cartoonish decal slipped beneath a big square of white Plexiglas. Similar to the vertiginous, disorienting blurs of a tilt-shift lens, the effect — done more or less by hand and not some trick of mechanics or optics — creates an image that is toy-like. The effect on a cityscape, like a tattoo sinking ink beneath skin to take an image and make it flesh, is soft and somehow naturalizing.
Burdeny took the photographs using a zen derivation of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” credo. Instead of catching the bike at just the right tilt, Burdeny would wait for days and days until there was just the right kind of luminescent overcast — with light as thin and flat as the horizon itself blanketing the sky and bouncing with the same brightness off the waves. After the right clouds obscure the sun, Burdeny photographs it using 8×10 transparencies. He dodges and burns until the cityscapes bump up against the limits of our optical willingness to be seen and understood as photographs. And pushing them this way, so Burdeny’s theory goes, produces landscapes using architecture.
David Burdeny’s Sacred and Secular is on view at David Weinberg Gallery in Chicago until October 30, 2010.