Water under the bridge(s)

“What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt — it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.”

— Hal Boyle

The public-art schema of the redevelopment project currently under way by the San Antonio River Foundation, et al., is imperfect. Wildly ambitious, hard up against serious time constraints, fraught with materials and engineering issues, disappointing in its dearth of women artists (until “Phase III,” anyway), and coming into being as it is amid an atmosphere of homogenized, chain-establishment mediocrity that has reduced the world-famous Paseo del Rio to an obligatory, vaguely embarrassing destination of two yearly pilgrimages (for us locals, that is); one at lit-up holiday time, and maybe another during Fiesta, and almost always at the behest of clueless visitors from out of town. Once there, while we’re gliding along on a River Taxi, we think, gosh, it really is beautiful here … then, perhaps, if you’re me: Jesus Christ, look at how crowded Hooters is.

But if this River Foundation plan actually comes to pass, the results may be nothing short of kick ass. This Phase II involves 11 proposed public artworks by eight gifted artists situated along the lower portion of the Museum Reach, a 1.2-mile stretch beginning at the current River Walk, and pushing North to the Pearl Brewery complex. These artworks, most of which center on at least one heretofore-unloved bridge, are wildly divergent in focus, vary in scope and scale, and encompass art-historical gestures from Art Nouveau ironwork to John Cage-inspired “Sound Sculpture,” but all are imbued with a community-friendly bonhomie as well as design ideas of real (ahem) depth. Collectively they could make for a lively, relevant public space with the power to entertain and inspire. The potential is transformative! The inevitable disappointments are sure to be legion! And the ongoing process is fascinating as hell.

I attended the Friday-night dinner portion of the River Foundation’s “Art Writer’s Weekend Getaway” at the Cool Café in the Havana Riverwalk Inn, where artists gave imagination-capturing (though brief ... perhaps because brief) presentations about their proposed work. Unfortunately, sound sculptor Bill Fontana didn’t make it, nor did Philadelphia-based installation artist Donald Lipski. We’re a long trek from either coast for a weekend PR blitz, I guess … though, hell, MARTIN RICHMAN MADE IT OVER FROM LONDON. San Anto’s own George Schroeder was missing, too. (WTF, George?)

Anyway, here’s my “cheat sheet” of the assembled artists and their works. I’ve included only the artists who presented at the dinner; as this story grows more complex and more decided, I’ll cover the upcoming projects of Schroeder, Fontana, and Lipski.

Martin Richman

A British artist who cut his career teeth designing light shows for musical acts such as Pink Floyd, then returned to fine arts in the mid-’80s. Past projects include lighting installations for London’s famed Battersea Power Station and for bridges at London Fields and Bethnal Green. Impressed the Current with his genuine interest in San Antonio. “People in London believe Texas is a vast, flat place full of people who love George Bush,” he laughed. Richman’s projected installation for the Lexington Street overpass employs a delicate system of small, vibrantly colored acrylic panels suspended under the bridge’s whitewashed underside and open to the breeze, which will reflect floating, LED-assisted ghosts (my term) of pure, joyful color.

Rolando Briseño

Native San Antonian who rode his bicycle as a child on the (then-)undeveloped banks of the San Antonio River, he went on to Columbia, and lived in NYC for 15 years. Briseño’s works are part of the permanent collections at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and both the Brooklyn Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. His river project is concerned with slowing down, spending time in the shade; specifically, he’s designing steel shade structures and lyrical railings that take their inspiration from the gentle river waves. There’s some question as to the logistic feasibility of some of Briseño’s original shade-structure design, but he’ll come up with something deeply meditative and soul-refreshing, to keep us cool.

Stuart Allen

Creator of the beautiful, sail-like installation “29° 26’ 14” N ~ 98° 28’ 55” W,” which occupies the area just below the ceiling in the Great Hall at SAMA. His river piece at the McCullough and Brooklyn Street underpasses deconstructs the colors sampled from, among other natural phenomena, a San Anto sunset, which are then used in panels set alongside the river so that the movement of the viewer, either on foot or by barge, sets into motion a playful optical experience of flickering changes in color.

Mark Schlesinger

A former New Yorker living in SA since 1999, Schlesinger’s work is represented in the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the European Fine Art Foundation in Geneva. Mark brought along smallish concrete tiles he’s treated with a myriad of finishes with which he intends to line the Ninth Street underpass, including fiber-optics intended to channel light under the bridge. He spoke eloquently of a “reward-based” approach that treats the viewer to an ever-changing experience based on their own movement. I love this idea, which is addressed in variations by both Richman and Allen: light as a lure, human movement as engine, abstraction as treat.

Carlos Cortes

Carlos is a third-generation practitioner of the “faux-bois” concrete work which replicates the look of wood, a technique brought from Mexico DF by his great-uncle learned by Carlos’s father, Maximo Cortes — examples of which can be found in Brackenridge Park, along the existing River Walk, and at mission Espada. Carlos’s planned installation includes a treelike “palapa structure” surrounded by rootlike benches and a fantastical “grotto” complete with waterfall, stalactites and stalagmites, and lush landscaping near the old Pearl Brewery. His sketch of the project is whimsical, seductive, and inspired, and represents the largest installation he’s made to date, as well as a continuation of San Antonio visual arts (and family) history. It’s simply gorgeous, at once organic and mythic, playfully manmade, fantastical, and deeply respectful of nature. •

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