Mario Reis paints with water
photograph: courtesy Mario Reis & Gail Severn Gallery
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Mario Reis sits quietly along the banks of the Salmon River near Sunbeam.
It is October of 2000. A square wooden stretcher, covered by a cotton canvas and tethered to the bank, floats and bobs in the chilly water. The German-based painter has spent many hours reading the river to determine the placement of the canvas and whether it should be weighted down or tied off. Ironically, the painter carries no implements of his craft like paints or brushes. Reis paints with water.
Reis preserves global waterways in hauntingly beautiful, telling works of art—from a jungle stream in Cameroon to a creek in Reykholt, Iceland, across North America and many European countries. This unique documentation spans more than 30 years and is destined to include a host of countries on almost every continent. Reis uses the water, and all it carries, in the evolution of each artwork. Buoyed on the waterways’ ebb and flow, the canvas becomes “painted on” as sediment, silt, algae, sand and all other manner of material passes through and becomes lodged in the cotton fibers of the canvas. Gradually, a textural surface builds up. Eventually, Reis extracts the stretcher from the water and another of “Nature’s Watercolors” is complete.
Reis began working with water and canvas in the late 1970s in Paris on the River Seine. The environmental art movement of the ’60s had been pushing artists out of their studios and into nature. Likewise, nature had been brought into the studio through the use of organic matter and natural materials. From this fertile ground, Reis emerged with a radical departure from the traditional landscape painting. Rather than painting what he saw along the Seine, like the water flowing beneath the bridge with Paris in surround, Reis sought to paint the reality of how these elements interacted.
What happened in Paris was also happening in the water. While not overly concerned with the environmental associations of the work at the time, he was definitely fascinated with the natural force and expression found in water. And so began his continuing pursuit of collaborating on a work of art with rivers and streams in every corner of the globe, documenting their stories and sharing them by way of a canvas. The energy and excitement remains with the artist to this day. “When I see a river, stream, a creek, often it is enough when I hear the sound, I am immediately electrified. I want to open new dimensions on seeing a river and landscape, to sense them through a piece of art and reflect on them,” Reis explains.
Exhibiting locally with the Gail Severn Gallery for more than 15 years, Reis’ “Nature Watercolors” elicit a variety of responses. Tranquil and unassuming at first glance, upon closer examination, these canvases are rich and intriguing. Pieces of pine needle and gold-flecked sand are clearly visible in the atmospheric surface of “Daisy Creek, Cook City, Montana.” The muddy yellow of sulphur merges with a clay-like greenish gray in “Salmon River, Idaho.” “The Prairie Dog Town Fork of Red River, Texas” is a swirling of deep burnt sienna.
Some works are dense with ridges of sediment and clay; others are awash in faint color. Each waterway tells its own story through its singular imprint of color, consistency, reflection of light and presence of life. The glittering black volcanic sediment of “Hawaii, Pacific Ocean” rearranges itself after a few moments of observation in the manner of a Rorschach blot—open areas move forward as darker ones recede almost allowing definite shapes to form. This play of light, space and texture exquisitely defines each individual waterway. With a surface like cracked plaster, the “West Sculpture Creek, California” canvas emanates a yellow-green glow despite the tangible sediment and rough texture. As with nature, there can be no replication or duplication; no canvas can ever be exactly the same.
Reading a river the way a fisherman or rafter would, Reis has spent many an hour watching waters flow. Careful selection of the site and a thorough understanding of the water’s speed and current is difficult and time consuming. The interaction between artist and nature is challenging and physically demanding. Without Reis’ thoughtful knowledge and preparation, water as paintbrush might not yield such remarkable painterly results. He persists in attaining the necessary position of the canvas, despite frigid waters and abundant snow. Waist-deep in the River Rhine in his hometown of Düsseldorf, Reis carefully situates the canvas with his hands. He then employs rocks, tree branches and natural eddies as he would rope, twine or stakes. Reis arranges for a desired outcome, while fully aware his control is limited. >>>