WITH A THEME so ubiquitous, elemental, and essential as H2O, one wonders how the curators of Watershed, currently on view at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, limited themselves to just 10 artists. For their part, the artists responded with work that is appropriately monumental in scope, if not always in size.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is Truman Lowe's lofty framework supporting long strips of wood that snake to the floor in an abstraction of a waterfall (impressive enough, though it seems a few hundred more of those strips would enhance things; maybe it's my own penchant for excess). Sounds from the Mississippi River are key in both Suzanne Kosmalski's and Tom Rose's installations, with the former incorporating spooky echoes of riverboat pilots in days of yore, and the latter filling a room with the rushing sounds of the river itself. Both installations also incorporate tank-like forms and video monitors, but where Kosmalski intends a commentary about our mediated, technological experience of the natural world today, Rose's installation pretty much embodies that experience--it's a carefully symbolic, coolly intellectualized rumination on human bodies, bodies of water, and the relationships between the two.
Dan Brueggeman also confronts our remove from nature in a subtle and eerie way, with curved, diorama-like landscape paintings--a flood scene, a drought scene, the rippling effect of a stone in water--that take their inspiration not from the real thing, but from advertisements and photographs of disaster scenes. The dreamiest art on display must be David Goldes's series of photographs of water-body surfaces, reminiscent of Vija Celmins's meticulous drawings of the same in graphite. Goldes mentions giving up a sense of control in these works, and indeed, he and his camera are at the mercy of whatever the water presents to him (though of course, the final photo choice is up to him). Unfortunately, these meditative photographs are marred by reflective glass--I found myself squatting and craning my neck to get a view that didn't include track lights.
Sharing the same gallery as Goldes's work are two large oil paintings of secluded waterfalls by Chicagoan Hollis Sigler. We're told that Sigler bagged her academic training in favor of a so-called feminist style with "no formal rules," and like Goldes, a "loss of control" is supposedly central to her work. Yet it's difficult to see how these principles derive from Sigler's neo-naif, almost folk art style; moreover, her monumental landscapes are tied to a very academic and very male tradition going back to at least the 18th century.
Michael Paha, a preparator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, offers a sculpture that has water running through a series of mini-landscapes in imitation of a river carving out the land; and Carole Fisher presents the latest incarnation of her ongoing, immense project on the aftermath of 1989's Exxon Valdez oil spill. The words here (and it's about 90 percent words) are printed on banners, but it seems this experiment in text, documentation, storytelling, truth, and PR would be better served by a different medium--a book, perhaps. Monumentality comes in a compact (and concise) form with Susan Peterson's pair of tombstone-sized marble slabs inscribed with florid descriptions of glaciers by 19th-century geologist Louis Agassiz ("The unmelted snows of this ceaseless frigidity; compressed into ice by their own accumulated weight, spawned a glacial, land moving Titan that fed upon the precipitation of frozen centuries..."); the combination conjures all manner of associations about seeming permanence and true power, imperceptible slowness, and eternity.
Amid all the gravity in this exhibit--water and death, water and life, water and ecological degradation--David Lefkowitz's installation stands out as a playfully monumental take on scientific, mythic, and idealistic themes surrounding the Land of 10,000 Puddles. Inspired by displays in natural history museums, Lefkowitz decks out a whole wall with "scientific" water samples; schematic, 3-D lakes; and some 40-odd paintings of water bodies (folksy ponds, swimming pools, drainage pipes, and such). Similar to Lowe's "Water Mound," a wood sculpture depicting a liquid surface, one of Lefkowitz's paintings is simply a framed piece of wood stained a purplish-blue which, by its juxtaposition with the other paintings, evokes an empty expanse of water.
Several events are planned in conjunction with Watershed, including a movie series in Rice Park; it's also part of "Confluences," St. Paul's celebration of the Mississippi riverfront taking place throughout May--call the Museum for more info. On view through July 21 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, Landmark Center, 75 W. Fifth St., St. Paul; 292-4355.
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