Disturbing Photos of American Oilfields Look Like Abstract Expressionism

Using satellite imagery Mishka Henner's '18 Pumpjacks' turns the oil industry into abstract art.

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Dec 4 2016, 1:10pm


Mishka Henner, Eighteen Pumpjacks, (2012). API 02914653 Mountain View, CA. 

In Kansas, California, and Texas there are hundreds of oilfields which have made an indelible mark on the landscape. 18 of them are the focus of London-based Dutch artist Mishka Henner's project18 Pumpjacks which is currently on at show at the Carroll / Fletcher gallery in London. Created in 2012 they're being shown as part of a wider exhibition Looking at one thing and thinking of something else: An Exhibition Show in Four Parts. The show is a look at how digital technologies have influenced contemporary art, with this particular exhibition looking at the concept of "observation."

For Henner, the modern world means observation can be done through appropriation and the artist often uses publicly available imagery in his work, taken from the internet, satellites and television. In 18 Pumpjacks he looks at the goliath that is the US oil industry seen through the distant machine eyes of the satellites in earth's orbit. Documented from space like this, and cropped from larger photos by Henner, the equipment of oilfields—pumpjacks, storage tanks, pipelines—becomes lost amongst the landscapes it's changed so dramatically.

"The abstract forms created by oil fields resemble the shapes and patterns of circuit boards," Henner notes. "Over time, I began to wonder if they reflected something more profound about US pursuits and preoccupations at home and abroad." 


Mishka Henner, Eighteen Pumpjacks, (2012). API 21936223 Levelland, TX

But while the machinery may look small from the perspective of space, it's made a huge mark on the American landscape. "The logic of oil exploration, exploitation and distribution lays its own map over the natural terrain," says Henner. And so it's left a legacy on the land, one which has its own patterns and forms which when viewed by Henner via satellite imagery becomes all the more artful.

"How this industrial logic has carved up the American landscape is also reminiscent of the dynamism and intensity expressed by Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Hans Hofmann," explains Henner. "It makes you wonder if the abstract expressionists’ inner landscapes were really a response to the outer ones etched on the land, or if industrialists themselves consider the land to be a blank canvas on which to express themselves."

Check out some images from the exhibition below.


Mishka Henner, 'Eighteen Pumpjacks', (2012). Levelland, TX, API 21902614


Mishka Henner, 'Eighteen Pumpjacks', (2012). San Andres, TX, API 21931252


Mishka Henner, 'Eighteen Pumpjacks', (2012). San Andres, TX, API 21930915


Mishka Henner, 'Eighteen Pumpjacks', (2012). Slaughter, TX, API 21930378


Mishka Henner, 'Eighteen Pumpjacks', (2012). Slaughter, TX, API 21901820

Looking at one thing and thinking of something else: An Exhibition in Four Parts. Part 2: Observations is on through December 23, 2016 at Carroll / Fletcher gallery London. Find out more about 18 Pumpjacks here. See more of Mishka Henner's work at his website here.

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