Flowing Like Water: The Art of Liquidity
Ackland Art Museum
Through Aug. 17

Empty your mind, be formless, shapelesslike water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” Bruce Lee

Lee’s inspirational words cut to the core of water’s fascination. We can never “be” water, and yet our bodies are predominantly composed of the stuff. As one of the prerequisites for life to occur, water holds us in thrall. Flowing Like Water: The Art of Liquidity is a refreshing way to reframe works from the Ackland’s permanent collection. Divided casually into three sections, “Hard Water,” “Flowing” and “Soft Water,” these are (as the museum notes suggest) merely rubrics through which to experience the workmost of the pieces could easily find their place in and among any of the categories.

A central impulse of Flowing Like Water is to highlight the liquid properties of paint media itself (water, ink, oil, spirits). Works such as Willem De Kooning’s “Weekend at Mr. and Mrs. Krisher’s” (1970) and Robert Motherwell’s “Automatism B” (1965-66), both lithographs, are exuberant examples of this. One might construe the kernel idea of the show lay in De Kooning’s loose black-on-white effort. Here the liquid is expressive, almost calligraphic, rendered with authority and a sense of freedom across the space of the paper’s surface. The fluid properties of the medium are also in full effect in Motherwell’s explosive investigation of painterly strokes, in which he boldly allows drips and splatters to hold the space of the work as effectively as the strokes themselves. A single drawn line offsets and underscores the liquidity in this work.

Another focal point of the show is the use of hard or dry media to depict flow or literal water. The engraver Giulio Bonasone’s interpretation (circa 1546) of Caravaggio’s “Cloelia Escaping from the Camp of Porsena” conveys the waterways of a perilous sea voyage through stylized swirls that read more as solid than liquid, in scrolls that unfold like cloth, paper or hair. Winslow Homer’s 1887 etching “Eight Bells” frames two seamen seen from behind, tracking the elements with their nautical equipment, navigating a storm and tempestuous sea. Homer’s patient rendering generates a remarkable paradoxa matrix of placid lines that produces fearsome waves and ominous weather. Bridget Riley’s “Elapse” (1982) is a fluid, linear abstraction whose meanings and intentions expand beyond notions of liquidity, and yet it serves as a dynamic foil against which to view the rest of the exhibit.

Another example of a dry medium that effectively evokes watery imagery can be found in Hiroshi Yoshida’s woodblock print “Glittering Sea” (1926), in which simple cuts transform into brilliantly dappled light on the water’s surface. Felix Bracquemond’s etching and aquatint “The Swallows” (1882) is a jubilant display of natural forces. Bracquemond’s delicate strokes and fine details make his airborne subjects come alive. The artist playfully allows one renegade swallow to break through the pictorial frame, which gives the work a feeling of allegory.

Robert Graham’s bronze sculpture “Source Figure Fragment” (1992) features one of his inevitable nude female forms, here a headless torso, included in the show no doubt for the stylized ripples that surround its cylindrical base. Of greater interest than its watery associations, however, is the surprising confluences between it and an 1806 engraving, “Virginie on the Wreck (Naufrage de Virginie)” by designer Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and engraver Barthélemy Joseph Roger, a romantic drama that circulates around an archetype of feminine fragility, a concentrated scenario of sex and violence (note the unfortunate head of a drowning man below). Both works fetishize and objectify the idea of the feminine and the female form in fascinating parallel structures. The element of water here is not irrelevant, brought into high relief as a (Jungian) symbol of the femininenot to mention the Chinese notion of water possessing “yin” or feminine qualities.

Vija Celmins’ lithograph “Ocean” (1975) is a small-scale example from her well-known series. Celmins’ work is astonishing in its capacity to communicate vastness, even in this scale. Here, the image of choppy ocean waves extends to the straight edges of the pictorial space, reducing the idea of “ocean” to one singular mesmerizing quality. One of the pleasures of Flowing Like Water is the opportunity to see works from various eras alongside each other in the same exhibition. Harry Callahan’s “Detroit” (1941) is as small as a snapshot, a gelatin silver print that simply frames reeds rising up out of still water. Callahan and Celmins share the capacity to reveal patterns found in nature as rhythmic and compelling abstractions.

“Stream in Winter” (circa 1910) is a platinum print by George H. Seeley that drives home the idea that sometimes it is simply pointless to think of figuration and abstraction as mutually exclusive, binary constructs. Here a snaking stream cuts a dark swirl through luxuriant snow. The graininess of the print and its soft focus culminates in a sublime totality that transcends its narrative and depictive content. Conversely, in “Homing Ship, Central Park, New York” (1944), André Kertész manages to galvanize every square millimeter of the image’s surface to fuel a narrative moment. The artist makes brilliant use of a puddle’s mirror reflection of white sky and skeletal trees. A child supports a large toy boat that covers his entire bodyonly his legs can be seen. Everything delivers information in this workbenches reflect the diffused winter sunlight, and every leaf on every tree seems to have a story to tell.

Virtually all of the artworks in Flowing Like Water are either representational or evocative, or they were included for the overt fluid properties of the media they employ. However, one work stands apart from these categories: Daniel Seagle’s 4-gallon stoneware jug from circa 1850. The inclusion of this utilitarian (and beautiful) object speaks to another dimension of art production that isn’t addressed in this exhibit: the conceptual. As a real object, not an image, Seagle’s jug anchors the exhibition and opens up a whole range of aesthetic and experiential associations. A flood of potential candidates for this category comes to mind, such as Roni Horn’s epic Icelandic project Library of Water, Oscar Muñoz’ evaporating water portraits, and Olafur Eliasson’s “New York City Waterfalls,” currently churning the waters of the Hudson River. Other immediate associations include Jeff Koons’ notorious basketballs suspended in water-filled tanks and Andy Goldsworthy’s interventions in nature as seen in the 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides. Any number of other artists have approached this infinite theme conceptually, including such diverse practitioners as Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Joseph Kosuth and Wolfgang Laib. Obviously, Flowing Like Water was organized around the Ackland’s permanent collection, so perhaps no such works exist therein. If this is indeed true, however, the deficit deserves mention.

That being said, Flowing Like Water feels timely and even urgent. Under the specter of global warming, the exhibition offers an aesthetic experience that is tied in to the here and nowand to life itself.