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The Romance of the River

By nate byerley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 4, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

If rivers are the veins of the earth, then Mario Reis is a junkie. Reis, a German-born artist, has made a career out of tapping these veins and taking impressions of waterways across the world. In his exhibit, "Memories of a River," Reis's work speaks to both aesthetic and scientific sensibilities.

Adhering closely to postmodern standards, this exhibit is as much about method as it is about the subject matter. In fact, the first works of art one encounters in "Memories of a River" are not canvases but poorly-mounted photographs. The photos depict incredible landscapes in the background, and in the foreground, water in all its diversity - rushing and cascading or stewing, septic, and stagnant. In each of these waterways is a stretched cotton canvas, two feet by two feet, secured by a string and overturned so that the canvas becomes a sieve. These canvases, trailing like fish on fishing lines may spend up to three weeks in a river, collecting everything that a river can carry: sediment, sticks, leaves, insects, pollutants. Once Reis deems these natural watercolors complete, they are removed, sprayed with a clear adhesive, and he is off again looking for a new river, a new studio.

An artist's statement in the gallery suggests that these are not "environmental" works of art. At the same time, Reis refers to his canvases as "natural watercolors" or the "self portraits of a river." To give voice, as he does, to a muted natural surrounding immediately supports classical environmental rhetoric, but absent in Reis is work is any sense of politics. Reis acts simply as a facilitator in both the creation and presentation of "Memories of a River."

Once in the gallery, the canvases extracted from their natural origin, one would suspect that the science behind the process would give way to the pieces as works of art. However, Reis's decision to title the works for the river that made them forces the question: Can these canvases simultaneously act as a scientific documentation and an artistic statement? Indeed, one could read these canvases like a book. Bigger particles trapped on the canvas mean that the river moved rapidly. Reddish hues suggest that the river was making its way through sandstone. Scratch marks suggest detritus, leaves and twigs dragged across the surface. This exhibit is as much about geology as it is about art.

As art, these pieces are beautiful. The small space, adjoining the main exhibit hall of the UAMA, is filled with four 9-by-9 foot canvas grids each one representing a different river. These grids act as both tonal studies, from smoky black to a moist ochre, and as calibration works. Where one study is hazy and diffuse, others are crisp and delineated, setting up an interesting visual dialogue which results in the epic conversation mounted on the west wall. It is a grid 3 canvases high by 5 canvases wide, each canvas a portrait of a different river from across the western United States and Canada. This grouping is both visually stunning in its spectacular range of pigments and compositions, but it also evokes notions of time, travel and discovery in the implied process.

Reis's work, while versed in the postmodern vernacular, is not limited by it. So often, process subsumes product, and exhibits read more like instruction manuals, or in this case, geology textbooks, than works of art. Reis's attention to color, texture, composition and presentation scream as loudly as his mesmerizing and romantic process.