Beautiful Paintings of a Most Toxic Waterway

Mie Olise's new series draws inspiration from the Gowanus Canal, one of the most toxic waterways in the country.
Mie Olise's new series draws inspiration from the Gowanus Canal, one of the most toxic waterways in the country.
Barbara Davis Gallery

The Gowanus Canal is barely two miles long and yet the lore surrounding the Brooklyn waterway is renowned. Decades of pollution from chemical plants and coal yards on its shores has made it one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation, and two years ago it was designated a Superfund site. At one point, it was even diagnosed with gonorrhea. Sadly, it's also a place where dolphins go to die.

For years, the area surrounding the canal has also attracted artists looking for cheap rents and the romantic inspiration that decaying industrial sites can bring. Mie Olise is one of them. Originally from Copenhagen, the painter currently has a studio only a few blocks from the canal, and her latest series pulls directly from the canal (literally, it turns out, too).

As if the canal's bleak, rugged industrialism and murky, toxic waters didn't provide enough to work with, Olise was also painting after Hurricane Sandy, and the resulting displacement of the area's structures is evident. Things are slightly off in her loose, flat paintings. Boats and canoes lean at odd angles, factories and plants stand on stilts, stretching up to the sky at unsettling heights and tilts. These aren't landscapes, either -- the boats and houses that occupy her monumental paintings and small studies exist in their own planes, with little telling you this is even a waterfront, save for the reflections of canoes in a couple of works.

In a move that's both fascinating and icky, Olise uses her subject literally in her paintings, mixing water from the Gowanus with her acrylic paint. It's there in all of her works, though its presence seems to be most evident in the dirty brown of "Loading House." The titular house looms intimidatingly and threatens to collapse on its thin wooden legs at any second, or just wash away completely. Thanks to the dripping quality of Olise's Gowanus paint, it seems to be in the midst of that process.

But these works aren't all dark. Olise employs unnaturally cheery pastels into her paintings, from the pinks in the canoes and solid backdrops to the dreamy strips of blues in her abandoned factories. The Gowanus in Olise's mind is not some gross, sad place, but one still worthy of some color and beauty.

"Mie Olise: Crystal Bites of Dust" at Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose Boulevard, runs now through March 9. For more information, call 713-520-9200 or visit

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