Contamination and Control:
Janet Kurnatowski’s Sculptural Installations
By Greg Lindquist
The 21st century landscape has become largely unnatural. The optimism of the Industrial Revolution has been replaced by a dread of its ruinous consequence for the environment and our health. No locale better embodies the visible reminders of this by-gone era with its waste processing plants, gasoline-storage facilities and abandoned refineries than Brooklyn’s waterfront and surrounding post-industrial landscape. However, what is not visible in this landscape and lies beneath its surface represents these concerns with more exigency and impending hazard than the empty architectural shells of their sources.
In 1919, twenty acres of the Standard Oil refinery storing 110 million gallons of oil exploded near Newtown Creek, a three and a half mile estuary on the Brooklyn-Queens border. An estimated 50 million gallons seeped into the creek and the underground water table, becoming the largest oil spill in history. Not until the late 1970s were there any clean up efforts made, estimating 17 – 30 million gallons remains, across a 55 acre plot, up to 25 feet thick.
Standard Oil, now Exxon Mobile, made a discrete agreement for clean up with the state that was not formalized until 1990. In the last five years, as Brooklyn’s real estate values have soared, a renewed interest in the spill’s resolution has produced new investigations that have found carcinogens such as benzene vapors in the basement of buildings. Janet Kurnatowski’s family has inhabited the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn for almost four decades. Both of her remaining family members in this area have been diagnosed with cancer whose causes are likely linked to the oil spill.
Kurnatowski’s work seeks to create awareness of this environmental disaster through a highly aestheticized and austere formal vocabulary. Conceptually driven, her work is also materially engaging. Pouring onto an acetate sheet a non-toxic resin used for enameling jewelry, Kurnatowski creates highly controlled spills by tilting the acetate sheet and using brushes. The result is a glossy, highly reflective surface resembling a cartoon caricatured puddle of oil. Kurnatowski then injects plaster into balloons and squeezing the intestine-like encasing while it sets, creates anthropomorphic forms. Engaging the viewer’s sense of smell, she soaks these sculptures in used motor oil and arranges them in communal clusters on top and outside of spills, activating installations on the floor and the wall.
The sculptures’ largely pristine forms ironically contrast the murky impurity associated with pollution. The black Pollockesque spills and pale plaster figurines, which recall the sculpture of Brancusi, Noguchi and Jean Arp, denote Kurnatowski’s ideals of beauty. Creating an unspoiled makeover for this contaminated subject also calls to mind her interest in cosmetology. Most importantly, though, Kurnatowski is an ideal commentator for this environmental disaster: Both a descendant of Greenpoint’s Polish community and a member of the young creative class that has steadily gentrified its environs for the past decade, she understands the immediate and remote environmental, social and political issues. While at present the value of real estate seems to cloud the long-term risks to human health and the environment, creating awareness of these imminently fatal toxicities will lead to action and hopefully a full decontamination and clean up.
Greg Lindquist, a recent Pratt alumnus, is a Brooklyn-based painter who also writes about art.