Water Colors

There's a complexity of pattern in the branching of a tree, the sculpted shape of a cloud, the ripples on the surface of a fast stream, that cannot be duplicated by a human artist with brush and palette. German artist Mario Reis realized this in 1977, sitting at the Seine in Paris and watching other painters make competent, conventional depictions of the river. "That was only the illusion of water," he once said. "I wanted to show the reality of what was going on in the water."

So Reis started creating artworks with a method he still uses today. To show a river from its inside, he places stretched canvases face down in streambeds and leaves them tied in place for up to three weeks. The sediment carried by the water adheres to the canvas in patterns invented by the river's own current. The artist's only intervention is to retrieve them, detach them from their frames and apply a fixative to leave the river's tracks in place. The paintings are titled with only the locations and dates of their creation.

Since his long-ago inspiration, the artist has been traveling all over the world, making his paintings in the great rivers and small streams of Europe and North America. His exhibit "Mario Reis, River-Paintings & Drawings" is in its final days at Gallery Sonja Roesch.

The paintings that result from this process rival some of the best abstract art. Each features a single color, shaded with a subtle richness of texture and pattern unmatched by the finest human brushwork. Some streams leave washes with thin crack lines resembling river deltas, and some leave layers of what would be heavy pigment in a more conventional painting. Lighter spots on the canvas look almost like rust spots on metal. It's as if clearer forms were trying to emerge from these faint images like the faces one almost sees in clouds passing overhead.

The colors, mostly shades of brown ranging from almost black to light tan, vary from one river to another. Many are strongly tinted with reds and yellows from the water's mineral content. These include one from Red Mountain Creek near Ironton, Colorado, which has a high iron level, and a muted yellow work from West Sulphur Creek in California's Lassen Volcanic National Park. Sometimes the paintings even display a greenish cast from streams with strong algae growth. One of the surprises for Reis is that often the color of sediment left on his canvases doesn't match the observed color of the water.

The artist usually uses canvases of a standard size, almost two square feet. Each of these, displayed singly, exudes the same calm one feels in the presence of a scene of beauty in the natural world. It's as if an element of that natural world has been able to create its own self-portrait, tell its own story. Our ancestors associated rivers with the conscious spirits of nymphs and gods. These paintings suggest that such entities have revealed themselves here. It's no easy accomplishment to convey this kind of feeling in a stark white gallery in the middle of this huge city.

Several of the paintings are displayed together, creating juxtapositions of colors and patterns. At first glance, a group of five pieces -- from Japan, Mexico and Germany -- hung together in a sequence from pale gray to rich brown, resembles a paint card from the hardware store. But the series manages to both illustrate the distinct tint of each river and suggest a relationship between these geographically scattered bodies of water.

An array of 40 canvases, from Lehman Creek in Nevada's Great Basin, fills the back wall and dominates the show. These were tied together during their time in the streambed, and here the smaller patterns of shade and light are magnified and multiplied by the scale. The color is an extremely dark brown. Each canvas, on its own, is as strong as the single pieces displayed on other walls. Up close, the pigment is thick, stippled, three-dimensional. Viewed in its entirety, the patterning of each forms a larger design, its continuity accentuated by the grid lines between them. The smaller patterns are repeated, slightly modified, in the larger. The process, with its element of deliberate randomness, creates objects with their own peculiar order.

This is borne out by another grouping of 15 much smaller canvases from rivers in the American Southwest. Despite differences in scale, the patterns and textures mimic those in the larger pieces. The wide variation in colors -- from the purplish Rio de las Vacas and Tonto Creek, to the dark yellow of Gray Copper Creek, to the near-black of Campbell Blue Creek -- makes this the brightest portion of the show.

The exhibition also includes three of Reis's "unconscious" drawings. For these, he attaches pencils to his fingers, has himself blindfolded, sits at a drawing board (usually in a wilderness location near one of his river projects) and attempts to hold his hands perfectly still for an extended period of time. The unguided movements of his fingers are recorded by the pencils. This is intellectually appealing -- the notion of Reis creating art with as little consciousness as the waters that paint his river canvases. These examples demonstrate more variety than one would expect. Unfortunately, they're of little compelling visual interest.

Another piece, Frogs, consists of two fireworks taped to a piece of paper. They function like firecrackers but look like old-fashioned ribbon candy. One has been set off, its scorch-marks blackening the paper. The other is still active, waiting for a match.

Some of the most interesting images are the photographs of the canvases in their streambeds. Appearing in publicity materials and in some of the articles and books about Reis's project, they convey the peace and wildness of their settings, with the semi-submerged square canvases looking not at all out of place in the rivers.

Reis has denied any association between politics and his work, claiming he doesn't have a "save the wilderness" agenda. And there's no explicit preaching or didacticism going on here. But his art draws attention to the waters of the world, both to their variety and their often polluted state.

We've seen the "great conversation" of Western civilization expand from European males to artists from other cultures and genders. We've embraced "outsider" art from eccentric loners, lunatics, graffitists, comic-book artists, children, mental patients, monkeys and dogs. With these paintings, even entities without organic life -- rivers themselves -- are creating art. It seems ridiculous to think of a river needing to "express itself." But since most of us live in urban environments and rarely have the opportunity to hear a river speaking from its home, it's good to hear from them here.

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David Fahl