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Put me in the water 

Water flows down the river. Jungle sounds in the background. Thunder. More water rolling over rocks. A man puts a painted canvas into the river. New Age music, more jungle sounds, and monkey chatter.

The painting floats by, only to be pulled out, carefully wrung, and taken to a cave where it is smoothed out on a rock. The entrance to the cave seems to have a patch of graffiti (a pictograph, perhaps?) just outside to the left. Where are we, in the jungles of the Amazon? No, it's --- presumably --- somewhere along the Genesee River (an urban jungle?).

We just watched a video about the working process of artist Ran Webber featured as part of his current exhibition, Baptized in the Genesee, at the downtown Central Library. The video was filmed to look old, with scratches and amateurish, jostling camera work reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project.

Webber soaks each painting in water, "marking its baptism in place and time," and then removes it, whereupon it gets crumpled, squeezed, dried, and repainted. The paint he uses is actually casein, which is practically insoluble in water and possesses great adhesive strength.

Webber has performed the process in different water bodies --- from the Niagara and the Genesee Rivers and even the Pacific Ocean --- to "[establish] a unique historical signature for each painting."

But can we tell which body of water produced what effects? The resulting works are quite homogeneous, reminding you of a cross between formulaic cubism and stylized surrealism. There's even plenty of vivid color to make these works good candidates for interior decorations: pendants above your couch, perhaps?

Napoleon consists of multiple planes of blue, red, and white on a sophisticatedly textured and mottled background. Although it's not a representation of the French emperor nor even specifically representing a human figureper se, it's definitely recognizable as a visual cultural reference from the hat, the coat, and the pose --- all cleverly captured in the composition.

The painting's surface has been worked by the artist, and with the help of the river, is quite rich and varied. But why Napoleon, why baptism? Is this some trial or primal ceremony through which the paintings are initiated, purified, and given a name?

Those sounds of the jungle in the video make you wonder if the reference to baptism is an attempt to convince us of the purity of the process, about the coming together of the creative mind and the forces of nature, both working together to create art --- natural art. (And baptism in a river sounds more romantic than in a washtub, doesn't it?)

There are quite a few paintings here, 30 in all. Formally, one painting looks a lot like another, and although some are interesting as variations on a theme, the overall selection can use some editing. With so many in a relatively small space, it feels as if we'd just entered a salon-style commercial venture rather than a meditative space in a library.

The exhibition also contains three "apple grannies" --- a form of apple carving going back to pioneer days where shriveled and dried apples were used as doll heads. The gallery statement says that Webber has brought this American folk craft into the 21st century. How? The apples are hung in little metal boxes that contain unlit tea lights. Is this a votive for a past craft?

Webber also doesn't exactly "carve" the apples but instead gnaws them into shapes that look like a part of Mount Rushmore, a body of a woman, and a curled-up dragon, while he works on the computer. He uses his right hand to maneuver the mouse while gnawing apples he holds in his left hand. They are meant, according to Webber, "to serve as comic relief to the [relative] seriousness" of his paintings.

In the end, Webber's work really doesn't need all that extraneous stuff --- the river, the baptism, the candles, or the scratchy, documentary film effects, or even the howling monkey --- to be what they are. These works owe a lot to the innovations of early 20th-century art. So what does the 21st bring us?

Baptized in the Genesee is on display at the Bausch & Lomb Public Library Building, 115 South Avenue, through March 26. 428-7300.

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