The New York Times recently ran a glowing review of the big Sister Gertrude Morgan show at the American Folk Art Museum. Penned by the Times' eloquent art critic, Michael Kimmelman, it was the second review of a local artist to appear in a major nationally circulated publication last month (the first being Art in America's splendid feature spread on Douglas Bourgeois). One of Kimmelman's comments stood out like a neon epiphany: "You have to accept that painting, when it comes from the heart and is so clearly genuine, can lift the soul."
It was odd to hear a New York art critic talk about painting "from the heart," but I was even more surprised to recall that line while viewing Stan Rice's last paintings at the new Stan Rice Gallery. Like Morgan, Rice was a self-taught, visionary painter, and both are no longer with us, but the similarity ends there -- or so I thought. Rice, after all, was an accomplished poet and husband of author Anne Rice; Gertrude Morgan was a semi-literate, self-ordained preacher and self-described "bride of Jesus."
Most of these paintings were completed before Rice learned he had the inoperable brain tumor that killed him, and reflect his concern for the psychology of perception rendered with his usual, vividly sardonic brio. The final three, completed during his final weeks when he was half paralyzed, are also vivid and sardonic yet somehow more direct, reflecting the heart and soul that go into an act of creative defiance. In them, Rice looks death in the eye and unflinchingly accepts his fate -- but on his own, uniquely ironic, terms. All are untitled.
One such work is a visual phantasmagoria, a couple of clock faces superimposed as if seen in double vision. As startlingly whimsical as anything by Morgan, it features a demonically gawky birdlike being, a pair of staring, dislocated eyeballs and the words "DEAD DEAD" scrawled sidewise amid a thick impasto of crimson, emerald and gold, roiling swatches of color as kinetic as any deKooning. Another is a closely cropped self-portrait depicting a view of his face as if seen in a mirror from an odd angle. Pale and discolored, it recalls the bold expressionism of George Grosz and the gothic surrealism of James Ensor's masks. It is quite simply a self-portrait by a dying, disabled man, and if not "uplifting" in the spiritual sense of Sister Morgan, one can only wonder at the courage and determination that went into it.
The other, pre-illness pieces are classic examples of Rice's later style -- works such as Impossible Love, in which a horse with the head of a man, and a girl with the head of a horse, convey an acute sense of psychic irony mingled with wonder. It's a poet's sensibility conveyed in paint by an artist with a colorful flair for ironic juxtaposition. As a whole, the show reflects Rice's increasing command of his materials, and although his life as a painter was brought to a premature close, this attractive gallery remains as a living memorial to his unique vision.
In the work of Carlos Villasante, at Heriard-Cimino, we see a world view that hints at the quirky imagination of the visionary painters tempered by an economy of line and form that suggest an accomplished degree of formal training. Perhaps this is because Villasante's Mexican heritage lends itself to the kind of magic realism we associate with Latin fiction. His boldly delineated figures are rendered in a precisely sketchy style reminiscent of ancient Greek, Native American and Asian art. Communicating in mudras, hand gestures common to Hinduism and Buddhism, they appear engaged in their own highly personal intrigues. Finished in flat swatches of color, colorfully patterned textiles and glyphs, works such as Fancy Feet, in which a green woman and a blue man gesticulate while a nude woman supports a sketchy figure on her shoulders, convey the sense of a dreamlike short story. It may not make any rational sense, but dreams and visions aren't supposed to be rational. We don't know what these figures are up to, but it works visually. And visual reality, like dream reality, is a parallel universe, a direct link to the psyche, a world within the world.
- Visual phantasmagoria: The late Stan Rice's untitled pieces, painted just before he succumbed to a brain tumor, show an artist looking death in the eye, accepting his fate, but on his own terms.