Bill Rice

by Donald Goddard

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What light there is seems barely to exist, yet it suffuses everything, and is everything, as at the beginning of the universe. Occasionally it's day but usually it's after dark, or before sunrise. Maybe the universe did begin in the East Village in Manhattan, where Bill Rice lives; someplace close to it, anyway. Squares and rectangles of the city grid - windows, streets, lintels, etc. - divide the larger rectangles and squares of canvas and paper, which become not just pictures but places of origin. Primary colors - red, yellow, and blue, but mostly red - emerge out of the black and brown miasma. Grid and colors surface together. What we see is definitive, basic geometry and color, but also provisional attendance on the manifestation of light. Either way - without light nothing would be seen; and there would be nothing.

In The Tree, of 1978, at the beginning of the show, the branches shoot up from the trunk like pale flames, becoming increasingly spectral as they enter the darkness around them. The picture is extremely spare, posing light against dark in the growing detachment of the tree's upper reaches. Funneling from a narrow horizontal strip at the base, the silent, slender trunk rises and divides into a crown, as trees do, but there are no details here describing a tree, its branches, leaves, and bark. Only the surrounding blackness has substance, and the tree emerges as tenuous amorphous shapes of bare, stained linen weave reserved in the blackness. The usual modernist formula of figure and ground is reversed, and two strokes of white paint, at the top and toward the bottom at the right, are reminders of the both the surface of the paint and the depth of the image. Figure is ground. Obscured by darkness the image is brought back more powerfully in the form of light.

When light appears, structure is revealed. Its sources in Silks, of the early 1980s, besides artificial ambient night-time city light, are a red "DON'T WALK" signal (which often appears in Rice's work) and the headlights of a yellow cab, both in reverse, reflected in shop windows. Thus can be seen the cab on the right, a figure in red shirt and blue trousers on the left, bent and moving to the left, the "DON'T WALK" sign toward the middle, and a certain arrangement of horizontals and verticals revealed in the buildings, sidewalk, and street. Figure and cab lean away from the large, vertical rectangle at the center, in which appear the two words, backwards. The painting is a grid of joined dissociations, of framed pictures within pictures, which, however, cannot be dissociated from the grain of the painting itself.

It's as though the rectangles of Mondrian were filled with adjoining stories, interconnected lives. In Neon, of 1980, the right half has a myriad of horizontals and rectangles, windows in buildings across the way seen through a large window from inside a room. The left half has basically two large rectangles of a window through which yellow glows through the top and red through the bottom, presumably from neon lights outside. An embracing couple, seen from behind, stands in the red glow of the larger rectangle, rising, like the tree, from the narrow, horizontal strip at the bottom. The implication is that each of the rectangles is occupied and joined with the others in a kind of endless interplay. So the pictures themselves, sometimes focused on the figures themselves, of naked men, sexual encounters, or conversations, are part of an endless interplay, in the artist's, and therefore our world. The difficulty, and necessity, of engaging that world is expressed by the extremely stringent striations of black horizontal blinds that allow us to see vividly but with great difficulty a red glow and the yellow shape of a cab outside the window in Untitled (Yellow Cab), of 1995.

Untitled Assemblage (2005) is literally a series of compartments, a grid of wood slats that divides a horizontal rectangle into six smaller rectangles, like an elevation of six rooms in an apartment building. The two lower, outer rectangles have cardboard boxes divided into grids of twelve square compartments lined with tissue paper, perhaps for peaches, or Christmas ornaments. Drawings on mylar cover the two left and the two right rectangles, one of a young man wearing a backward baseball cap, the other, I think, of two men making love. The two rectangles between them have various scraps and fragments of paper, exquisitely arranged, one with a note wondering where these things should go. There is nothing untidy about it - quite the opposite. Apparent disorder becomes order.

by Donald Goddard © 2005

The exhibition was on view at Mitchell Algus Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001.

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