The fleeting nature of Danae Mattes' art
By Lou Fancher
An artist's fascination with her subject is occasionally surpassed by her audiences' obsession with the very same item.
In the case of mixed-media artist Danae Mattes and her "River Passages" exhibit on display through Sept. 6 at Saint Mary's College Museum of Art, that subject is water. Incorporating natural materials catalyzed by water -- soil, sand, pulverized clay and paper pulp -- vertical wall sculptures some people may call paintings and an evaporation pool approximately seven feet in diameter express a philosophy of ephemerality, a feeling of "fleeting."
Without knowing the forecast -- California's ongoing, four year drought -- Mattes thought first of circles and edges, not exclusively water, while planning for the exhibit. A native of Rochester, Pa., Mattes holds a bachelor's degree from Edinboro State University and a master's from Long Beach State University. Exhibiting nationally and internationally, fellowships and commissions result in works in the collections of the Crocker Art Museum, San Jose Museum of Art, the City of Lauenburg, Germany and other art institutions.
Collections Manager Julie Armistead calls the Berkeley-based artist's work "dynamic" and Mattes' exploration of water and rivers "cohesive." Mattes said her work is lifelike, responsive and interactive -- like water, "In our hands, but also elusive."
Arriving in late May for the official "pour" of water into the circular floor sculpture, Mattes said working with water and malleable powder and liquid clay allows sculptural freedom.
"It's free and yet it's controlled. And that's part of time. The water exists, and then it's gone. The closed system of water on earth is an alive cycle we're always living within."
The evaporation pool, formed in a three-day whirlwind of activity with 1,300 pounds of clay, is a mirror for what happens to water in the human body, she said.
"It's fully liquid, absorbed, vaporized, released as air. Every time you breathe, you're losing water."
Early in her career, Mattes worked exclusively on a smaller scale, creating kiln-sized sculptures that segued into wall presentations. "They remained connected to my sculptural history and presented as paintings. After taking a workshop I realized I wanted to pull the aliveness of the process into a museum experience."
"Aliveness" means that the rippling clay profile that surrounds the evaporation pool and the spine-like vertebrae rumbling across its center will be nearly submerged, then gradually emerge like miniature hills and peaks as the water evaporates with time. It is the fifth pool Mattes has created.
"At the end, all of the materials are recycled back to clay to be used again," Mattes said. "I like the idea of saturation, permeability, of how the water moves through, is absorbed by the clay, leaves, becomes air, moves on."
She'll likely donate the recycled clay to students and unlike Californians' worry over the disappearance of water, she says the entire experience is liberating and yet tethered by history. "The water in our hands today could have been held half way across the world 300 years ago," she said.
Noting water is precious, Mattes said that if her work encourages people to be sensitive to the water cycle beyond their taps and agriculture, she's pleased.
"All life is dependent on this system being intact on a large scale. This work escapes the preciousness that art can assume: things changing is life."