A photograph shows German artist Mario Reis sitting in a lawn chair with a black sleep mask over his eyes and a drawing board in front of him. Behind him is a grassland panorama with low hills. Reis has a pencil taped to each index finger and holds his hands over a sheet of white paper on the drawing board.
The image documents the artist's art-making process; the idea is that Reis will try to hold his hands perfectly still. But nobody, not even the most determined, obnoxious mime, can remain perfectly still. It's even harder with your hands out in front of you, registering every breath and every tremor in your muscles. So what Reis ends up with are not mere dots from the tips of the pencils, but feathery lines and delicate scribbles. The drawings are on view at Gallery Sonja Roesch in the exhibition "Mario Reis: blindfolded drawings."
What do unintentional pencil drawings made by a blindfolded man look like? I can sum them up in two words: pubic hair. Well, except for the ones done with a rainbow of colored pencils -- those look like clown pubic hair.
And hey, I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Surrounded by white space, they are subtle and elegant. And to be honest, they don't all look just like pubic hair -- some of them look like pubic hair and lint.
Reis likes his process art, and it's not limited to the blindfold drawings. In previous exhibitions at Gallery Sonja Roesch, he's shown his "Nature Watercolors," two of which are included in this show. For these works, Reis takes stretched pieces of raw, unprimed canvas and places them in a river or stream for days, in order to accumulate silt, algae, pollution and the like on the canvases. Sometimes he weighs them down with rocks to collect more sediment. The canvases are then left to dry and fixed with polyvinyl acetate glue. The show includes a photo of a canvas floating facedown in a slow stream, tethered to the bank with a piece of string, like a trot line.
Possessing a European fascination with the New World's wide-open spaces and abundant nature, Reis has created his "nature watercolors" in Canada, the United States and Mexico. The titles often include geographical details; Near Hays, road 875, Alberta, Canada is a representative example. It's a nice idea to camp and make art, and descriptions of the process are intriguing, but things would be even better if the work it produced were more interesting. The concept makes for better copy than it does for good art.
Reis can get an amazing range of colors from the river pieces -- dark charcoal-gray, red and yellow ocher tones. But he's too enamored with his process. Reis displays not only the color field but also the borders of the canvas, where it was wrapped around the stretcher frame, including the rusty nail holes. The canvases are usually around two square feet, and he most often shows them in grid patterns. But the problem is that there just isn't that much going on in these pieces. If you've ever dropped a clean white shirt onto red dirt, you can pretty much imagine what these "nature watercolors" look like. Maybe if the surface areas were larger, allowing for greater tonal variations, or if he would at least get rid of the distracting edges, things might be better.
But this artist is full of ideas, and they aren't all delicate or organic. In a previous series documented in gallery catalogs of his work, Reis created drawings by having a train run over a sheet of metal. Judging from the reproductions, the works basically look like panels with a big jagged crease down the middle. They have the same spirit of inquiry that's led many of us put a penny on the tracks, but aside from that, they don't appear that interesting.
Another strain of Reis's process- oriented works made it into the show. As gallery director Sonja Roesch explains, Reis uses "real firecrackers" to make drawings. For one, he tastefully selected dark green firecrackers and attached them to a notebook-size piece of paper. Then he lit them, creating, as one might imagine, a smoky burned mark on the paper. Next to it is another firecracker that hasn't been lit, which Roesch excitedly points out as still "active." Apparently this is Reis's idea of subversiveness. But if you grew up in the rural South where people blow stuff up all the time, these dinky-ass little firecrackers aren't too impressive.
Firepower or no firepower, the problem with those drawings and most of Reis's other work is that although his concepts have potential, they aren't interesting enough to compensate for the generally banal resulting works. There's something melodramatic and unintentionally goofy about this work -- a sense of humor about it would have lots of redemptive power. Reis ventures into the wilderness to make his paintings and drawings, inscribing them with the location where they were made, which isn't even relevant in the case of the drawings. He tapes wimpy firecrackers to little sheets of paper and puts stuff under train wheels.
You get a sense that Reis is trying to present himself center stage without appearing to do so. In all the work, the focus seems to be more about "see what I, the artist, do," rather than the end product. In the end, the blindfold drawings are the most successful because what the artist does and the end product are inextricably linked. They are successful enough to stand alone as artworks without leaning on the artist's process to make them more interesting.
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