From the Blue Hole to San Pedro Springs, the River Walk, and Alazán and Apache creeks, water has been central to the life of San Antonio for thousands of years.

California transplant Elyse Gonzales, director of Ruby City, took to this theme for her second exhibition, Water Ways.

In bringing together 50 water-themed artworks from the museum’s collection, Gonzales said her thinking was “related to our excitement about the San Pedro Creek [Culture Park],” the linear park about to open its second phase with a stepped terrace leading from the water up to the museum’s red concrete entrance.

Gonzales said Water Ways honors the “symbiotic relationship” between Ruby City and the San Antonio River Authority, with construction on the terrace set for completion in October.

Rivers and refugees

Water is not directly visible in every painting, sculpture, work on paper, photograph or installation in the exhibition, though in each it is at least suggested or inferred, for example in bridges, pool handrails or a crevasse cut by millennia of erosion.

A floor sculpture by Mexican artist Luz María Sánchez, prominently placed in the center of the exhibition’s main room, appears as a collection of dirt-sodden clothing, plastic bags and bottles, food wrappers and other personal items. The title riverbank alludes to Sánchez finding these items on the banks of the Rio Grande during her 2006 Artpace residency and recognizes the fraught situation of migrants attempting to cross the border into the U.S.

Riverbank is situated near a newly acquired installation by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, who was in attendance for a Sept. 9 public talk with Gonzales. During the talk, Hatoum said her work Mobile Home II — coincidentally made in 2006 — references the situation of refugees without being specific to any particular place or time.

“For me the work functions when it can transcend location, or when it doesn’t speak of a specific conflict,” Hatoum said, suggesting that Mobile Home II could equally refer to her own early years as a Palestinian refugee, migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, or refugees throughout Europe fleeing from conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

The installation places common household items such as chairs, tables and dishtowels between two metal police barricades. Only after a sustained glance would a viewer notice that each item is subtly moving, affixed to thin cables that push and pull them back and forth in constant, unsettled motion.

Utopia and tears

The show includes artworks by several San Antonio artists. Joey Fauerso’s Utopia 4, depicts an idyllic sylvan scene rendered in her signature inky black paint on white canvas, tumbling rapids inferred by cloudy washes of paint. Ricky Armendariz references Indigenous folklore via two intricate large-scale woodcuts depicting a whale experiencing distress after swallowing a bear.

Jesse Amado was among the first round of artists selected for the international artist-in-residence program at Artpace in 1995 and knew its benefactor Linda Pace, who envisioned Ruby City to house her expansive art collection before her death in 2007.

For a 2010 exhibition at the San Antonio Public Library, Pace’s foundation commissioned a sculpture by Amado in her honor. He created Remembrances, a mass of 22,722 multicolored glass chandelier crystals each representing one day of Pace’s lifetime. A small-scale study of Remembrances hangs from a wall in Water Ways, drawing a connection between the sometimes glasslike surfaces of water, the liquid qualities of glass and tears shed at the loss of a loved one, as well as other potential references.

“It always looks to me like a frozen-in-place waterfall, and I love that association,” Gonzales said. “I love that it’s associated with Linda as well. But formally it has a connection with ice, which makes me think about the retreating glaciers and all of the climate-related issues that connect to water.”

As Gonzales notes in her introduction to the exhibition brochure, given the ubiquity of water in daily life, “It’s no wonder that this vital life source continues to inspire artists.”

Water Ways will remain on view through July. Admission to Ruby City is free.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...