Rivers have always presented a challenge for landscape artists. Their majesty, their mystery and, especially, their movement all resist a flat, two-dimensional rendering.

Enter German artist Mario Reis, whose recently completed North American Nature Water Color Project used an ingenious method to literally capture a river's essence. Since 1977 Reis has wandered through North America, Hawaii and Mexico, collecting "self-portraits" of rivers from the Arctic Circle to the Equator by submerging squares of stretched canvas in their flowing currents. Over a period of hours or days, sand and debris would accumulate and form a distinct pattern that dried onto the fabric, preserving a visual record of a unique place and time.

Arranged in grids on a wall in the Artforms space at Robischon Gallery, these earth-colored squares at first resemble dull relics from the age of minimalism. Despite their initial uniform appearance, however, up close they offer mind-boggling variety and scope. Each river leaves a particular signature determined by its flora and fauna, the speed of its current and the minerals it carried: "Ka'anali'i Stream, HI," for instance, traps on canvas the black, glass-bead silt of ancient volcanoes; "Red Mountain Creek, CO" captures the ocher-and-rust grit of a sluice-mined Colorado stream.

Reis's portraits impart an almost physical sensation of transport: Suddenly the viewer is standing at the river's edge, looking down into rippling shallows or watching a swift, narrow channel. The effect is dizzying at first, but in time it becomes a sublime meditational device, a pocket-sized trip to "Hot Creek, CA" or "Hoole River, Yukon Territories, Canada." In this, Reis fulfills the original role of the landscape artist: to bring the feeling of the great outdoors to cramped city walls. But labeling these extraordinary works merely as "landscapes" is tricky, because Reis strips away the emotional distance created in so much traditional landscape art and pokes fun at the conventions of the genre.

The true strength of this series lies in its conceptual depth and humor: the absurd heroism of Reis's seventeen-year-long odyssey, his deadpan conviction that the dirty cloths are in fact paintings made by a nonhuman entity, the works' curiously narrative quality (each canvas, usually hauled for miles on foot into remote areas, carries an interesting story about the way the image was collected). Half ecological specimen and half time machine, Nature Water Color Project unearths a flood of emotion, meaning and sensation.

Along with the river portraits, Reis also shows two series of related experimental works on paper. Like the river project, Static Drawings and Blind Drawings also defy accepted customs of art and representation. In order to create these impressions of natural settings, Reis ventures into the wilderness, blindfolds himself, then tapes pencils to his fingers. The serenity of the open air soon encourages a meditative state, during which Reis sightlessly allows his fingers to scrawl the invisible psychic dimensions of the cliffs, trees and water that surround him. Although the resulting scribbly drawings look nothing like landscape sketches, a poignant message from nature still bubbles to the surface.

Mario Reis, through December 31 at Artforms in the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7799.


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