Watered Down

An artist's-eye view of "Hull," by Riley Robinson, one of several intriguing works in Southwest School's group show, H2O: Considering the Hydrosphere. Thirty-four well-known local artists contributed their meditations on water, including Alex de Leon, Rick Hunter, Chuck Ramirez, and Anne Wallace. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Panning for gold in the deluge at 'H2O'

At one point during the opening of H2O: Considering the Hydrosphere, the group show on view at the Southwest School of Art & Craft through March 14, I was escorting four youths, ages 6 to 15, through the exhibit. Their favorite piece by far was Anne Wallace's video, "Wild Thing: Love Song for a River When Water is the New Oil." I'm not prone to romanticize the insight of children, but in this case they picked the piece that made my heart beat faster, too - and it wasn't just that familiar pounding guitar track from The Troggs' 1966 anthem. Consisting of a quick montage of oil derricks followed by an aerial cruise over a fork of the Brazos river that runs through Wallace's family ranch, the video is lyrical, rough poetry. "Wild Thing" feels unfinished, like the early stage of a great idea. Still, the raw edges are essential to the feeling of wistful angst it leaves in its wake.

Because some works were created expressly for the show and others were pre-existing, H2Os assigned purpose - "an opportunity for San Antonio artists and the viewing public to ponder the innumerable ways that water is essential" - gets uneven attention. (The exhibit is sponsored by SAWS, and brochures and tchotchkes promoting conservation are available.) Vincent Valdez' "I could be wrong, I could be right," Lloyd Walsh's tattooed octopus, and Alex de Leon's enamel-on-steel painting, "She Drinks Like a Fish," while offering the always-welcome opportunity to see these artists' work, don't really further the proposed discussion. We don't seem to know how not to invite artists to participate in San Antonio.

"Hydrologic Cycle" is disturbing in the way its artful pop facsimile so effortlessly invokes the real, compromised resource that is polluted with chemicals from plastics and paints.
That undisciplined hand with the invited artists list means the gallery space is overcrowded, which does an injustice to much of the work. You can't back up for an unimpeded view of Leigh Anne Lester's shadow ripple, whose sine waves are traced with small punctures in the wall. And there's not enough room to contemplate the various angles of Riley Robinson's steel sculpture, "Hull." Fortunately, as with Robinson's 2002 work, "Freedom Train," the artist's close-up photographs of the piece (not included in H2O, but one image of "Hull" is on the brochure) reveal detail and intent that don't present themselves in the gallery space.

Themed shows can be disappointing - especially when the artworks themselves are not curated, as is the case here - because the result feels like a class assignment with an even bell curve from C to A, with lots of Bs in between. Chris Sauter is the precocious teacher's pet with his upholstered cardboard reconstruction of the Hoover Dam blocking one of the doorways between the gallery rooms. And Jayne Lawrence's "Hydrologic Cycle," featuring a long, cool ladder and idealized vinyl water drops, is disturbing in the way its artful pop facsimile so effortlessly invokes the real, compromised resource that is polluted with, among other things, chemicals from plastics and paints. On the literal side, but point well-taken, is Jeanette MacDougall's "I'm Parched Without You," a collection of jars filled with soil, seeds, and pigment.



9am-5pm Monday-Saturday
11am-4pm Sunday
January 29-March 14

Southwest School
of Art & Craft

Russell Hill Rogers Gallery
300 Augusta

But in many ways, the show belongs to the photographers. Uta Fehlhaber-Smith's multimedia piece is overwrought, with a repeating inset image detracting from her photographs of various points along the San Antonio River, but the encased vials of river water, sampled at the location of each corresponding image, directly address H2O's prescription. "Water Under the Bridge" could have turned into the worst sort of didactic conceptual project, but the set overcomes its handicaps in part by evoking the inherent art of science and methodology.

The pinhole cameras made from trash washed ashore on the Texas Gulf Coast make pale, watery images in Ralph Howell's "Flotsam and Jetsam." The artist's designation for his contraptions, "driftwood cameras," cleverly belies the nature of the detritus that clutters the oceans nowadays: tennis shoes and gas masks that won't disintegrate for decades. Including the actual camera-objects on ledges in front of the photographs, however, points up our current irritating refusal to interact with the artwork solely on its own terms. Now that endless "insight" is available to us through video documentaries, interviews, and hands-on exhibits, we need to relearn not to peek behind the curtain or, to put it biblically, stick our fingers in the wound.

Awaiting diligent viewers who thoughtfully work their way through H2O, is a simple gem. Rick Hunter's "Ice Water," a large-format, close-up photograph of condensation on classic anodized aluminum cups is striking in its vivid simplicity, demonstrating once again that, love him or hate him, Hunter knows how to compose and capture an image that imprints on the mind's eye. The crystalline drops of water, forming and sliding down the jewel-colored surface, bring the unmatched pleasure and absolute necessity of freshwater immediately to the viewer's senses. •

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