Editor's note: The following essay from the catalogue for the exhibition Preservation of Place: The Art of Edward Rice was reprinted in Resource Library on September 1, 2011 with permission of the Morris Museum of Art . If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Morris Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Preservation of Place: The Art of Edward Rice
essay by David Houston
The creative evolution of Edward Rice's painting is informed and supported by his nearly lifelong examination of the conventions and properties of representational art. From the exploratory watercolors of his youth to his most recent paintings of closely observed architectural details, Rice's work represents a continuous process of refinement -- a distillation of ideas and skills over four decades of painting his preferred subjects: people, landscape, and architecture.
After a rigorous apprenticeship with Freeman Schoolcraft, an academically trained painter and sculptor from Chicago, Rice chose to continue his study of traditional oil painting with subjects drawn from his immediate surroundings. In an era that was notable for its stylistic heterogeneity -- a period in which everything from conceptual art to postmodernism and beyond seemed to demand equal attention -- his decision to pursue realist painting was not an obvious one. At a time when "the death of painting" had long been accepted as fact, Rice carved out his own points of reference and, through concentrated study and regular travel, invented his own tradition of a usable past. He came to understand his work to be part of a continuum, following a line that extended from Sienese Renaissance painters like the Lorenzetti brothers, through such masters as Titian, Vermeer, Corot, Cezanne, and Hopper, to the difficult realism of Lucian Freud. Rice did not emulate the specific styles of these artists, but rather joined a community of kindred spirits who, in their own ways, struggled to find a way of recording their perceptions with paint and canvas that made sense for their place and time.
As many realist painters are, Rice is firmly grounded in a specific place -- in his case the GeorgiaSouth Carolina border along the Savannah River. Even though this is his starting point and the place to which he always returns, Rice has also painted far afield-in England, France, Italy, and Ireland. But most of the visual experiences that define his work -- those moments that constitute a kind of artistic epiphany-occurred within a few miles of his home.
Rice started out as a slow, methodical painter who understood painting as a process creating a convincing illusion of reality on a flat surface. For him, this undertaking meant a systematic study of a specific place, at a specific time of day, during a specific season of the year. He usually kept two four-by-four-foot paintings underway at the same time, one started in the morning, the other in the afternoon, and it was not unusual for him to put at least one of them away for a year if the season changed or the light shifted before he completed the painting. This slow, patient approach, constructing a highly personal style of radical realism board by board and brick by brick, yielded a small, distinguished body of architectural paintings that define the years from 1982 through 1987.
As with any creative journey, Rice's has had its share of moments of doubt and forks in the road. Frustrated by the time-consuming approach of his architectural work in the 1980s and early 1990s, Rice chose to follow a different path for a time and made a parenthetical series of twenty-one paintings of a fig tree that grew behind his studio. At the core of this new series was a conscious attempt to work in a variety of styles that were alien to his tightly controlled, time-ordered architectural paintings. He sought to experience what it would feel like to paint quicker and looser -- in a variety of hitherto unfamiliar ways of applying paint to canvas that might help to blaze a new trail for his work. Rice also experimented with new subject matter, exploring the figure and landscape and producing a range of travel paintings. However, he never strayed very far from close observation.
In the mid-1990s Rice returned to architectural themes with a renewed interest and a somewhat modified approach to composition and mood. Where his earlier work concentrated on a vernacular building within the larger context of the surrounding landscape, his new paintings concentrated on the essential forms of the structure, with a more generalized approach to the surroundings. Paintings such as Enterprise Mill (1992), Public Housing (1995), and Mill (1995-1996) serve as a sign of a newly austere treatment of subject matter. Though Rice once took great pleasure in exploring the long tradition of realism and relished his in-depth study of traditional painting materials and techniques, by the early 1990s he had begun to question his methodical approach and to confront the tensions and conventions of being a realist painter in the late twentieth century. His questioning of assumptions and his continued search for fruitful models led him to reinvestigate issues that supported his earlier work.
In embracing, once again, architectural themes as the main subject of his work in the mid-1990s, Rice reexamined the intense perceptual realism that animated his early plein-air architectural paintings. While his concentration on essential geometry had enabled him to explore underlying structures and universalized form, this trajectory had also taken him away from the most fundamental issue at the center of his mature work: the tension between perception and representation.
We live in an age of visual sophistication. One's awareness seems to increase exponentially with the introduction of every new form of digital technology. One could argue that visual literacy is of a higher order now than ever before. One of the most profound changes wrought by digital technology, however, is the transformation of the relationship between visual representation and truth. Verisimilitude, the very idea that what one sees is true or real, was the operative theory that underpinned painting from the Renaissance until the late nineteenth century.
The modernist break with verisimilitude, asserting that forms were the representation of an inner reality or simply complete in themselves as a new visual language of forms, challenged the tradition of representational painting. Just as modernist painters began looking for reality in the invisible, photography was assigned the responsibility of representing the truth of the real. Painting, as one major discourse went, had given over reality to photography. A process based in science, it was simply a tool for recording the truth. What appeared to be an intellectual crisis at the time appears today to be an intriguing, spirited dialogue that has enriched both media for over a century. Similarly, digital technology has challenged and undermined the notion of verisimilitude in the photographic arena. Today we are left with the simple idea that all images are a construction, a re-presentation or alteration of reality. Not only has this changed sense of perception altered our ideas about art, but it has also irrevocably altered our understanding of an external reality as a ground for visual truth.
Rice's early architectural works are, if anything, excessively real. Born of intense observation and meticulously rendered in traditional oil paint, these works offer a degree of surface detail and intensity of vision that outstrips the human eye's ability to record and synthesize information. Vision is selective. Rice's representation of months of visual sensations distilled into one canvas presents an intensification of his subject in a manner that he feels only a painting can record. This distillation of reality pushes factual realism into the realm of superrealism; these paintings are so much of what they are that they also become something else, something that suggests the archetypal.
Particularly important to his evolution is Dormer (1984-1987). The fact that the painting took three years to resolve is an indicator of the intense observation distilled into this painting. This dormer is just across the alley from his former downtown Augusta, Georgia, studio. It is something he saw every day. The cool conventionality of this painting is deceptive. Although rendered in a direct realistic style, it may also be read as a color-field painting, its four distinct bands of color creating a Hofmannesque push-pull effect that, in turn, suggests a shallow field of abstract space. This feeling of abstraction is furthered by the spatial tension in the work created by the dual perspectives that at once suggest a view from below on street level and a direct view at eye level. The strong vertical lines further accentuate this tension and the ambiguous floating effect of the vent located to the left of the dormer. This tension between the real and the abstract marks Rice's evolution for the next decade.
Painting, like life, is an activity that is experienced progressively and analyzed in retrospect. If anyone had told Edward Rice that he was working with the aesthetics of spatial ambiguity driven by the tension one experiences in the gap between vision and representation, he would have undoubtedly rejected the idea as far too complex and theoretical for his perception-based, experiential approach to painting. However, we see the same compositional tensions at play in the work of many of his sources of inspiration. This is particularly the case with the sophisticated, self-conscious exploration of these same tensions seen in the paintings of the English artist Lucian Freud, who has discussed this at length in various interviews. Rice was first influenced by Freud in the 1980s; by the 1990s, Freud's work had become a major point of reference.
The defining issues of Rice's creative evolution in the late 1990s represent a synthesis of vision and representation that launched an investigation on Rice's part that was not dissimilar to the search he undertook in the twenty-one paintings of his fig tree in the early 1980s. The arc from Pendant in 1996 through Springfield and Cupola in 1998 embodies a new sense of seeing, one that renders light with the perceptual sensitivity of the early works, yet offers a new synthesis of the complex, problematic concerns that Rice had been exploring for over a decade. Recent bodies of work have departed from the standardization of scale, subjects, and style typical of his earlier works. A painterly work now sits comfortably by a tightly painted work, as does a small fully rendered building alongside a large architectural fragment.
Edward Rice's creative journey has not been a conventional one. Like many perception- based artists, he has seen his concerns with representational painting migrate from the periphery of the art world back to the center. Like most artists who choose to master the slow, complex medium of oil paint, Rice has had the patience and diligence to follow an inner logic of his own making, supported by patrons, friends, and institutions that recognize the significance of his highly individual journey. Although not fashionable in today's world in which culture and celebrity have become a media-saturated hyper-commodity, creation is still, in the words of the architect Le Corbusier, "a patient search."
-- David Houston, Bentonville, Arkansas, June 2011
About the author
Director of the Curatorial Department at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, since the spring of 2011, David Houston served the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans as its chief curator from January 2001 until his appointment as codirector in January 2010. Prior to that, he held positions at Clemson University and with the South Carolina Arts Commission. The author or editor of numerous essays, catalogs, and publications, as well as a noted lecturer, panel participant, and moderator, he holds bachelor's and master's degrees in art history from the University of South Carolina.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 1, 2011, with permission of the Morris Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on September 1, 2011.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Nicole McLeod of the Morris Museum of Art, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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