The River Spectacular

by Dan R. Goddard June 11, 2010

Mark Menjivar photo of Lipski installation

Philadelphia sculptor Donald Lipski suspended giant, lighted longear sunfish under an I-35 underpass. Bill Fontana of San Francisco amplified the sounds of the San Antonio River, from bird calls to droning insects. British artist Martin Richman created a light show on the surface of the river using prismatic strips suspended from the bottom of a bridge.

The San Antonio River Foundation has published a softbound coffee-table-ready book, “The River Spectacular: Light, Sound, Color & Craft on the San Antonio River” (Maverick Publishing, $38.95), that documents the nine installations by eight artists along the new Museum Reach extension of the River Walk, easily the city’s most ambitious public art project.

Donald Lipski's F.I.S.H.

San Antonio artists include Carlos Cortes, a third generation master of trabajos rusticos who constructed an elaborate faux bois carved concrete grotto in a bend of the river, accented with waterfalls and ghostly faces. Stuart Allen sampled bits of sky to come up with the colors for his shifting metal panels. Mark Schlesinger experimented with pigmented concrete, and sculptor George Schroeder hammered and bent steel into shapes inspired by agave for hand rails.

With references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Haruki Murakami and Naomi Miller , arts writer Wendy Atwell provides some theoretical context for these works of sound, light, painting and sculpture. She interviewed each of the artists and allows them to explain their ideas, as well as describing the large-scale installations under the nine bridges along the 1.3 mile stretch of the river from downtown north past the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Mark Menjivar (l), Lewis Fisher, Andrea Caillouet & Wendy Atwell

Photographer Mark Menjivar found plenty of colorful drama in the unfolding art projects, though most of these installations are best seen at night, and his most memorable shots tend to be at dusk, such as the inspiring two-page spread of the Cortes’ grotto that shows the “invisible” outline of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the steeple-like pinnacle, or Richman’s dancing reflections.

Carlos Cortes' palapa

Artist Andrea Caillouet designed the book, which features her richly textured photograph of rippling blue water on the cover. Publisher Lewis Fisher of Maverick Publishing wrote the introduction, and other contributors are Kim Abernethy, executive director, and Mike Addkison, project director. Perhaps the funniest part is the short essay about the red tape involved in creating public art, which doesn’t have a byline.

Stuart Allen's shifting, colored panels

Atwell goes into detail about each project. Allen had his two children take snapshots of the river, from which he extracted pixels of native colors that he then applied to the stainless steel mesh of his panels, which seem to flicker with different colors as you walk past. Fontana sees himself as a curator of sounds who has focused his attention on sounds we tend to be unaware of, amplifying them in his installation near SAMA so that, for example, the calls of birds are exaggerated and made more vivid, causing listeners to be more sensitive to their environment.

Mark Schlesinger at work

Not all the projects are a 100 percent success. Richman, who once did light shows for the Velvet Undergound, didn’t reckon on the force of the wind under his bridge, which has caused dozens of the prismatic strips to break off and fall in the river. Though Schlesinger’s glow-in-the-dark concrete sounds like a good idea, which he plans to patent, the actual effect is so minimalist as to be hardly noticeable.

But the River Foundation is to be congratulated on its gamble on public art, which is often seen as an “add-on” rather than an integral part of the project as it was on the Museum Reach. Lipski’s glowing fish and Cortes’ magical grotto are just as much a hit with the locals as the tourists.

Note: All photographs by Mark Menjivar and courtesy of the San Antonio River Foundation, except for shot of the book’s creative team.

Glowing, pigmented concrete stripes by Schlesinger


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