When a painting is approached like a lover there is no room for deception and the result is true.
The multitalented Bill Rice lives on a downtown block shadowed by a monolithic men’s shelter, on streets imbued with dark romance, a world far removed from Apple Pie America. Despite his birth in bucolic and often frozen Vermont, Rice immortalizes a Lower East Side beauty that smolders with evening heat. Actor, director, filmmaker, playwright and painter, the 74-year-old Rice is an eclectic creative force who has worked with downtown luminaries like Jim Jarmusch and Richard Kern, Cookie Mueller and Penny Arcade, Gary Indiana and Charles Henri Ford.
Artists from Piet Mondrian to David Kapp have captured the city’s jazzy geometry. But it is Rice’s low-rise city that pulses with quiet human poignancy, in a portrait of a diverse and ethnic neighborhood that retains its complexities still. The block he immortalizes is now shared by a Salvation Army home for wayward boys and a faux "meat market" that sells coveted designer sneakers. Looking out his window, Rice views a metropolitan microcosm.
The works on view at Mitchell Algus Gallery on West 25th Street stretch across a 30-year span. Rice can paint men with the glowing sensuality of Gauguin in Tahiti. In Two Puerto Rican Brothers (ca. 1980), the figures are framed in a tenement window against a metallic gold sky that has the intensity of a cigarette dangling from cushioned lips.
In Neon (1980), perhaps the most complex composition in the show, a couple embraces passionately against a burnt umber wall juxtaposed with a view through a window to an urban grid of obdurate black blocks reminiscent of Franz Kline. The intertwined lovers are a sensualist caryatid. A pair of canvases, both tall and thin like a view through a window (and both Untitled) depict the fleeting pleasures of a street trick and its solitary aftermath.
Five poignant watercolors, all dated 1986, can be read as an elegy for that year when the early AIDS epidemic continued its decimation of New York’s creative world. Using a title echoing his friend David Wojnarowicz’s iconic and untitled photographic image of buffalo charging headlong off a cliff, Buffalo Dreams depicts men supporting an incapacitated central figure, an actual portrayal of Rice’s companion, who died of AIDS. Green Tank Top celebrates the first brave verdant treetops midst the relentless gray urban monochrome, heralding spring’s renewal.
Also in the exhibition are collage experiments, an assemblage, photographs and a 1983 video, Sound Bites in the Garden, featuring monologues written by David Wojnarowicz and interpreted by Rice, Kirsten Bates, Allen Frame and Nan Goldin.
Mystery pervades Rice’s subterranean city, whether from the velocity of a taxi seen through Venetian blinds, as in Untitled (Yellow Cab), or in the burnished neon signage of Walk. Bruised skies are shadowed with dusk and iron gates embroider brick.
Rice’s refined expressionism celebrates a world that defies nostalgia. Homoerotic subject matter, an elegantly edited output, plus a rarity of exhibitions positions Rice as a transgressive art star. And just as uncommon is a show such as this, which leaves the dazzled viewer wanting more.
Bill Rice, "The View from 13 East 3rd," Sept. 8-Oct. 8, 2005, at Mitchell Algus Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
ILKA SCOBIE is a New York poet.