WITH ITS MASSIVE photography library covering everything from artists' books to heavyweights like Richard Avedon and Sally Mann, I never want to leave Ampersand Gallery. Never. I want to curl up on the concrete floor with a stack of books full of images by Imogen Cunningham or Ed Ruscha, or an obscure work I've never heard of (see: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's excellent bastardization of the Bible; Ampersand's got it), like a more intrusive used-bookstore cat.

It seems almost unfair to other galleries that Ampersand gets to offer this collection alongside their shows, because it means that even if the art on the walls isn't quite what you're looking for, something will be. It also means that when a show arrives that can suck me out of my library-induced stupor, it's worth yelling about. Ampersand's latest show, The River Keeps Talking: Ellen McFadden, Matthew F Fisher, Clayton Cotterell, is one of these. It plays upon that Pacific Northwest sensibility that we live up here on the edge of the world, with each artist considering—to some degree—our communion with water.

Of all of the works, Clayton Cotterell's photographs of watery landscapes (a churning eddy in a river, the seam between ocean and sky) appear to be the most purely representational. But this is quite literally a trick. Cotterell's images are highly manipulated, but while the effect is occasionally obvious, it's near impossible to discern what he's done to achieve it. Occasionally, the enhancement looks digital, and sometimes it's plainly old-school—a flash used to blow out the color on a leaf. One of Cotterell's river views is so solarized-looking it resembles nothing so much as grouped arteries and blood cells glimpsed through the lens of a microscope. Another photo is more legible—it's a heavily textured body of water fading into sky. The color—a cerulean tinted with an unnatural-looking green—seems a little off, but otherwise, this is nature photography. The pairing presents a playful challenge: By juxtaposing obviously manipulated images with what seems like straight-ahead photography, Cotterell calls into question the authenticity of his entire body of work on display.

If Cotterell's abstraction is subtle, Ellen McFadden's is the opposite. The 87-year-old (!) painter, who recently exhibited at Wieden+Kennedy, works in huge, geometric gestures. Her circles 'n' squares are evocative of Sonia Delaunay's geometric abstraction, but McFadden's color palette is pure pop. She works in super-bold yellows, mint green, magentas, and reds—an onslaught of color that's the visual equivalent of mainlining Fun Dip. But it works, thanks to McFadden's clever containment of her bright lights in highly-concentrated cubes, their legions suggestive of paint-chip gradients.

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Matthew F Fisher's paintings are a happy medium between McFadden's broad strokes and Cotterell's intricate tricks of the eye. Working in a set of freaky seaside motel-esque near-neons, Fisher's fractured landscapes feature confusing perspectives set by super-low horizons; further destabilizing is his penchant for putting abstract shapes into almost-representational settings. What the fuck, Matthew F Fisher? Installing wacky shapes on what looks like a beach during sunset guarantees you'll want to identify the object. I mean, you definitely can't. But you'll try anyway.

It gets weirder: Here's a humanoid wave you didn't ask for. Here's a trippy pink sunset called "The Rose of Nowhere." Speaking of titling, Fisher's opaque names for his images make no effort to give you anything else to hold onto. If you're looking for meaning, you won't find it in "Meaningless September." So, as with everything else in The River Keeps Talking, don't look for meaning. Just look.