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Let the river run

Trapping, tapping and sapping the source

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All that blood running through your body, pumping life to limbs and lungs, following the pace of your day, thumping fast and slow – relentless, incessant and oh, so necessary.

That's the Catawba River, our communal life blood.

Every once in a while, you see an art show that fundamentally matters. The Light Factory at Spirit Square delivers one with River Docs: A Catawba River Narrative. This show introduces us to the source animating our every day -- keeping us hydrated, clean and wrapped in photosynthetic green. Bigger than love or money, the Catawba River is the local wellspring to our collective mojo.

Corralled by veteran collective conscience curator June Lambla, six artists paddled and waded, walked the banks, and sat and wondered about this long stretch of water flowing from the North Carolina mountains to flatland South Carolina. We see the Catawba through the artists' eyes. Their field reports are idiosyncratic, curious, revelatory and, occasionally, a little disturbing. Most of us have long tapped this hidden and glorious resource for pennies a day. Many visitors will see this river for the first time. All will leave this show knowing the river better.

Sheer white fabric hangs from six serpentine steel rods 10 feet above the gallery floor. Flowing across the translucent fabric is the Catawba River, wandering left to right, wandering in and out across the folds. The blue limned white line of the Catawba follows the undulating folds and describes the circuitous 226-mile run from a nameless mountain spring in North Carolina to Lake Wateree, S.C.

Huddled on each side of the blue vein are mottled washes of earth and vegetation -- sienna, amber, umber, reds, greens and faded yellow. The colors radiate and sprawl away from the river following gravity, topography and the hand of man. Organic lines describe the rise and fall of earth at the river's edge. This installation by artists Marek Ranis and Maja Godlewska acknowledges the ethereal beauty and the power of the river, while illustrating the river's malleable servility under the industrious guiding hand of man.

The work is analog to the river: vibrant, powerful and fragile.

Raymond Grubb's river is a primordial and mysterious place. His black and white palladium prints evoke the river before man arrived, a hushed and benign wilderness, hidden, untrammeled and unseen.

"Cascade on Catawba Falls" is a veil of thin white water rushing across slick stone. The translucent mist rolls over the rock edge and falls to a still pond below. The water hangs down the stone face like fuzzy frozen icicles rising from the black water.

One man-made river embellishment photographed by Grubb is the Mill Dam above High Shoals, a craggy vertical rise so low tech and primal it appears to have been built by intelligent beavers. This river is forever shrouded in mist or fading light, idyllic and raw, frightful and intoxicating, the river you would see on waking up on the river bank a thousand years ago.

His photographs look 150 years old, his subjects ageless.

Byron Baldwin escorts us on a river walk through vistas touched by the hand of man. He announces man's arrival with clear and unflinching panoramic digital prints -- wide vistas describing the width of the river and the breadth of man's impact.

In "Mount Holly Boat Landing," 2006, a man leans back in a PVC chair and suns himself on a blacktop parking lot wider than the river. An old truss bridge spans the river in the distance beyond the boat landing. A 50-gallon can and more PVC chairs decorate the foreground. The man's legs are crossed and propped on a chair; he leans back on a spindly porch post and calls out to someone off-screen, stage left. He's having a good time, but his asphalt boat landing feels more punitive than recreational.

"Old Dam/New Housing Development, Gaston County," 2006, is a portrait of a man fishing. He stands on a water-chewed cube of concrete, the remnants of a pier, jutting 30 feet into the water. Perched on the rise beyond the green river bank is a four story brick and vinyl box wrapped around 5,000 heated square feet. The roof dormers peer above the tree line like the eyes of a predator. The man appears content, but he looks misplaced, like a child building sand castles in the street.

Most of Baldwin's photographs document the deep footprints and lost souvenirs of men who have moved on. Dams and bridges, water intake grates clotted with plastic bottles, houseboats, duck blinds and abandoned docks are testaments to man's arrival and notice of his recent departure. Man's presence or absence isn't what makes these places hollow, but what he's taken and what he's left behind.

The river is seen from a distance in "Historical Catawba Land, York County," 2007, a photograph by Nancy Pierce. The year might as well be 1207. A reflective ribbon of water winds through thick stands of trees hugging the river's edge. We scan the wet path through the risen eyes of uncounted generations of water fowl, and from the distance of time and space once enjoyed by the Catawba Indians. The scene is unfettered and pristine. Pierce's next photograph steals me back from that comfortable distance.

"Diesel Fuel Spill at Belmont Water Intake," 2007, describes an attempt to corral thick gelatinous scum behind two submerged yellow tarps strung across a steel cable. The cables wind across a black sheet of oil laced with foamy flotsam. The tactic actually appears to be working; the scum backs up against the cabled tarp in slick, thickened layered lines of petroleum goo.

Pierce's work is primarily abstract. The river document is here, but composition and found design dominate. The dry river channel, the algae, the surveyors' mark, is all informed by an eye searching for composition in the viewfinder, and for the design inherent in the objects. Who finds beauty in a fuel spill? It's here.

"Drought-Related Brown Algae Blooms, Lake Wylie," is a field of cobalt blue water pocked with blooms floating on the water's surface. The blooms look like mushroom caps cradled in floating finger bowls. A single phosphorescent green grasshopper floats on a small island of offal among the algae blooms. Two long wire thin antennae spring from the hopper's head like a silent distress signal. The sad distasteful content is brilliantly composed.

A plasma monitor hangs at the end of the gallery. Touch the screen twice to see a craggy blue line run west to east for 100 miles, then plunge south for another 125 miles. Touch the screen along the river's path to visit stops on the flow: from Lake James, through Lakes Hickory, Norman, Wylie and finally to Lake Wateree where the Catawba River ends.

The river was mapped by artist Mike Wirth using digital media, recorded sounds and digitally scanned photographs. By engaging Wirth's Iswa (a native Catawba phrase meaning "River Talking Wind"), we are physically oriented to the river in time and space -- from the 1919 Bridgewater Station at Lake James to tomorrow's trophy homes booming like algae on Lake Wateree. Touch the screen to see the construction of the Oxford Hydro Station at Lake Hickory, The Mountain Island Lake Mill, phosphorescent green dye in a Mecklenburg county culvert. The whole river is here, in memories recorded and brought forward with a touch of the screen.

I used Mr. Wirth's monitor as my personal GPS while wandering this show.

River Docs is a tonic slap in the face, a show to see right now, as we labor, only vaguely aware, through one of the worst droughts in our short 230-year land lease. Don't wait until the kitchen tap spits apologies or you're required to shower with Aunt Bee.

Let your green turn brown and go to Autobell.

The exhibit River Docs: A Catawba River Narrative runs through Feb. 22 at The Light Factory, 345 N. College St. For more information, call 704-333-9755 or visit www.lightfactory.org.

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