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 Martha R. Severens


Ed Rice paints another world. One that is distilled, quiet, and clean. It is neither surrealist nor photorealist. It is a world he encourages the viewer to enter, to bathe in the glorious light, under cloudless skies, away from the hectic pace of modern life.

Rice's awareness of architecture came early on. He recalls this his first formative encounter with important architecture took place on the highway between Augusta, Georgia, and Greenwood, South Carolina, when he was about five years old. From the back seat of the family car he spied the Edgefield County Courthouse. Its large scale, along with the stairs leading up to a deep porch graced by tall columns, impressed him. Even then he had good taste: the design of the Edgefield Courthouse had been influenced by the work of the distinguished antebellum architect Robert Mills, cited by some as this country's first trained architect. The Rice family lived in modest circumstances, so it is not surprising that he, as a youngster, was awed by such grandeur.

The artist remembers another telling childhood event that took place at his grandmother's dining room table: he drew a picture of a Victorian house, an example of the Queen Anne style, copied from a book cover. He still has the drawing. Grown faint and fragile, because of its cheap materials, it signifies to him an important beginning.

With these anecdotes serving as background, it is easy to appreciate Rice's deep-seated interest in architectural subjects. He is blessed to be living in a small Southern city with its own rich history and some architectural aspirations. He has also traveled frequently to New Orleans and Charleston, two "Queen" cities -- richer and more prestigious centers of cultural activity than Augusta, certainly, the home of his choosing as an adult. However, Augusta offers Rice one significant benefit: familiarity. He can return over and over to the same site, see it under changing climatic circumstances and varying light conditions, and, occasionally, in altered states of repair. For example, Yellow House (1996) depicts a simple frame house, windowless and doorless, as it undergoes demolition. To the casual viewer it may not be immediately apparent whether the structure is going up or coming down. Regardless, it is a supreme example of Rice's aesthetic: spare, geometric, with careful interplays of color and studied light.

By and large Rice tends to gravitate toward the style of architecture and decoration that is peculiar to this region. He often paints homely structures, selecting a salient detail to represent the whole. He appears to love the upper registers of buildings -- cupolas, gables, and dormers. This preference is strategic, as it allows him to elevate the building from the level of pedestrian concern, where mundane paraphernalia might intrude or distract. It also forces questions about scale: is this a large building or small? In Pendant (1996), for instance, a viewer might wonder whether he found this detail on an imposing public building, like a courthouse, or a private residence. Coupled with the deep shadow of the overhanging gable, the weight and proportion of the pendant suggests the latter. But whatever the source, Pendant is a wonderful study of triangulated shapes and lights and darks. Its slight asymmetry distinguishes it from the rest of Rice's oeuvre.

Normally, the compositions are viewed dead-on as in his numerous dormer paintings. The viewer is positioned below, looking up. Sometimes, but not always, elements are foreshortened. When they are not, there is a tendency toward flattening; geometric shapes are pulled close to the picture plane. Dormers are ideal raw material for him, forcing, as they do, a visual interplay among several architectural elements. In both Dormer with Slate Roof (2010) and Dormer with Mansard Roof (2010) the protruding window is depicted in juxtaposition to the roof behind. In Dormer with Slate Roof, the triangular peaks mirror one another, while in Dormer with Mansard Roof strong horizontals above and below contrast sharply with the steep gable above the window.

Perhaps the most intriguing interplay of shapes comes in Dormer with Down Spout (2003-2004) in which the simple white dormer is dramatically truncated by emphatic rooflines. The drama of this presentation is heightened by the saturated, slightly unreal colors that vie with one another for the viewer's attention. But the clear focal point of the composition is the downspout. Its funnel-like shape seems a somewhat whimsical detail, given the severity of the elements that surround it.

Occasionally, a painting verges on abstraction, and perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is American Gable (2007), its title an apparent play on Grant Wood's iconic masterpiece, American Gothic. In Rice's painting the rather ordinary termination of a frame structure fills most of the picture plane. Its triangular peak reaches nearly to the top edge of the frame, and that creates, in turn, two triangular negative shapes of deep blue. The relationship of Rice's architectural images to the edges of his paintings is critical. Many times the top of a structure comes tantalizingly close to the top edge of the painting, while the sides and bottom are as often as not painted right to the edges of the canvas.

The role that skies play in Rice's paintings cannot be overstated, and he labors over them accordingly. He loves to talk about cerulean blues and lead whites. He speaks passionately about his glazes and how he "builds" his paintings. Rice is clearly a methodical painter, and that may explain why architecture as a subject suits him so well. One of his first concerns is the proportion of his canvas, as it will determine so much about the finished work. Always attuned to the world around him, Rice will notice the shape of a window in a hotel room and make a notation in a sketchbook. He looks at paintings by other artists and contemplates their measurements, often examining them closely in museums, before looking them up and studying them further when he gets home. One of his favorite artists, unlikely as it may seem, is Georgia O'Keeffe, who often used canvases measuring forty-eight inches by thirty. He admires her skyscraper paintings -- most especially her Radiator Building-Night, New York (1927) -- because they are architectural. As significantly, he also admires her paintings of calla lilies, a recurring motif in O'Keeffe's work, most likely because she pulled the flowers close to the picture plane, often bringing them right to the edge of the canvas.

O'Keeffe may not be the first artist who comes immediately to mind when one looks at the paintings of Edward Rice. His connection to others is more obvious, and he is not too bashful to admit his admiration for them. Edward Hopper, whose moody streetscapes and paintings of such examples of vernacular architecture as lighthouses suggest certain parallels to Rice's work, comes to mind. However, Hopper's brilliantly lit interiors, where women face sun-filled, open windows, or Rooms by the Sea (1951, Yale University Art Gallery) in which a great shaft of light sharply delineates a trapezoidal shape, may provide a more apt point of comparison. Rice has also sought out for particular study the work of Charles Sheeler, a self-proclaimed precisionist. Sheeler's clean lines, measured scenes, and intense blue skies all appeal to Rice, and, as is the case with Sheeler, the line between subject and style blurs. Exact, detailed, flat, hard, big -- the subject has become the style and vice versa.

It should also come as no surprise that Rice is interested in the painters of the Italian Renaissance, as they were among the first to pierce the picture plane and grapple with linear perspective. Paolo Uccello, who was obsessed with the new techniques of rendering the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface, and Piero della Francesca, known for his inherent sense of geometry, are among the artists favored by Rice. But Rice's notebooks reveal an eclectic taste, and it seems he can mine a broad variety of painting styles -- everything from El Greco to Pierre Bonnard to George Bellows. Nor does he limit himself to painters exclusively; one sketchbook notation gives Antonio Canova's name, followed by "get slide."

Some of his notebooks contain technical information, as, for example, a note on a painting by Nicolas Poussin: "deep red ground." Like the French master, Rice plans his compositions carefully, starts with a suitably proportioned sketch, and moves to his canvas, where he produces a complete underdrawing in pencil, using T-squares and compasses, before laying in a monochromatic underpainting -- all this prior to adding any color. It is a painstaking process, and Rice often works on more than one painting at a time, alternating as layers dry.

Occasionally, he reworks a painting, dissatisfied by the color of the sky or some other element. His most significant makeover, however, was the painting that began as Pilot House in 2000, evolving over ten years into Charleston Cupola. Initially, the painting depicted a Charleston landmark on East Bay Street, not far from the Old Exchange Building at the foot of Broad Street. A cupola projects above a tile roof that has been tarred over. His first version was a fairly literal depiction of the cupola as seen from below, heavily foreshortened, and somewhat severe. A second attempt led him to repaint and lighten the structure in graded tones of ochre. In the final version, Charleston Cupola, the bright red of the original tiles is brought back to life, contrasting sharply with the bright white that enframes the cupola. Undersurfaces glow warmly as they reflect the intense coloration of the tiles below. Instead of the eerie transparency of the windows that one would experience in reality, the panes now are dark and murky, creating an almost Andrew Wyeth-like sense of mystery.

While Rice experimented with Pilot House over a lengthy period of time in order to perfect it, four paintings that he was commissioned to produce for the Greenville County Museum of Art presented quite different challenges. His assignment was to paint four historic churches in Greenville. Each owes its existence to the beneficence of city founder Vardry McBee, who gave the land on which these congregations built their places of worship. Although the buildings that house these congregations today are not the original structures on these sites, Rice's task was still burdened by history. His task was further complicated by a need to bring the paintings together as a group, while simultaneously distinguishing them from one another. For each he selected a salient feature -- Christ Church Episcopal is distinguished by a gable and its refined brickwork; Downtown Baptist by its classical spire; First Presbyterian by a Victorian-style turret; and the Buncombe Street United Methodist Church by a detail from its imposing frieze. They are subtly differentiated by the skies, which range from the bright blue of the Baptist church to the hazy gray of the Presbyterian church. Scale, sharp delineation, intensity of color, and similarity of shapes unify the four paintings.

Rice's preoccupation with seasonal variations that have an impact on light and color are reflected in his notebooks, with instructions concerning the time of day and year when he should return to a building to catch a certain light effect, a certain shadow. In one notebook he acknowledges a great forebear, who made many color and light studies: "Monet painted almost 100 views of Waterloo Bridge from the Savoy [hotel] on the banks of the Thames," Rice wrote. Though he shares a method and keen perceptual skills with the great French impressionist, their art is worlds apart. Rice is not interested in the immediacy of the impression. Instead, he makes art that is durable, stable, and in keeping with a postmodern aesthetic.

It is easy to think of Rice as a painter specializing in crisply delineated architectural details, but he has also painted Southern mansions and modest outbuildings. To each he applies the same attention to proportion, geometry, symmetry, and the interplay of lights and darks. The mansions by their very nature demand more embellishment, and to this Rice has added vegetation and more detailed foregrounds, creating images that are richer and more dimensional. Both 923 Telfair (1982-1985) and 111 Butler Avenue (1983) belong to an earlier period; both appear more as house portraits in their concern for literal detail. In fact, Rice earned money as a teenager by painting house portraits, which he sold for as little as $5.00. When, after just a few years, his paintings commanded $15.00, he came to think of himself, he says, as a "professional artist." These canvases deliver more narrative content than those depicting dormers and downspouts. A viewer might ask, who lives here, why are the shades pulled, why don't they prune their trees?

At another place on the socioeconomic spectrum are the service buildings -- barns, sheds, buildings meant for the protection of livestock and goods -- that have recently caught the artist's eye and captured his imagination. While the structures themselves are unprepossessing, they are accorded the same dignity and grace as the important buildings that once merited the full portrait treatment. His depiction of service buildings places them somewhere between the grand mansions and the simplest architectural details. Tool House (2009) and Corn Crib (2010) are straight-on views of simple, functional structures rendered symmetrically and with an eye to their inherent geometry. They occupy a sort of neutral, undefined space, determined as much by the sky as anything else.

Characteristically a man of few words, he can wax enthusiastic and at great length when provided a chance to discuss painting in general and his own work in particular. Verbose and enthusiastic, he regales listeners with details about his materials and methods and his choice of tools like T-squares and compasses to mark and measure the buildings he depicts. He is passionate about color and the paints he uses, rattling off the names of pigments -- cerulean, ochre, cadmium, umber, and lead white. His preoccupations are appropriate and in keeping with the work itself, his enthusiasms contagious. What the viewer remembers most about Ed Rice's paintings is their careful geometry and their lively colors.

-- Martha R. Severens, Greenville, South Carolina, May 2011


About the author

Martha R. Severens retired from the staff of the Greenville County Museum of Art in the spring of 2011, having served as that museum's curator since 1992. Before coming to Greenville, she was the curator at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art and before that was the curator at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Severens is the author of many books, including Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, The Charleston Renaissance,Andrew Wyeth: America's Painter, as well as numerous monographs on individual artists, essays, and articles. A graduate of Wells College, she earned a master's degree in Art History at Johns Hopkins University.


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.

To read other essays by Ms. Severens published in Resource Library please click here.

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