Which is the Figure and Which is the Ground

"Four Bay Area painters"

The R.B. Stevenson Gallery, La Jolla, Ca.      March 5  through April 9, l995

By Jonathan Saville, The San Diego Reader,  March 10, 1995

     ‚ĶFinally  in this group show at the Stevenson, there is Tim Rice, represented by two large and two small pictures.  In an earlier review of Rice's beautiful paintings, I commented on the way many of them seemed on the brink of representing definable objects in the real world, chiefly landscapes.  The basic reason for that suggestiveness, aside from the depth and luminosity of Rice's color, is the vividness of the figure-ground relationship - a vividness reiterated in his large paintings in the current show:  Honne (dark black and red, with gleaming patches of white or gray),

and 'Listening to Music' (intense blue, with patches of black, pink and ruddy tones).

In both pictures there is a radiant, floating quality, as though objects or events were looming against a fathomless space of water or sky: 'Listening to Music'  reminds one of a Monet pond, while Honne suggests a murky cave with arrows of sunlight, or a stormy night sky with flashes of lightning.

     In the two smaller paintings by Rice, In Passing (purple-brown and yellowish) and Corona (gleaming pale golds and tans), the figure groung relationship is quite different.  Both of these pictures are characterized by an overall repetitive texture of small, interlocking shapes.  They are covered with "figure" to the point where the proliferation of figurational shapes itself becomes the ground.

     Here too, the suggestion of real, represented objects is strong.  In Passing suggests a Bosch hell, with dark demonic creatures or hills of torment interspersed with fulminating, eerie light - or a leaf-strewn forest floor - or a lichen-covered rock.  The point is not that the picture is explicitly representational, but that it incites the imagination of the viewer to see objects, any objects - hence the range of possibilities in interpreting what the objects are.  Similarly, Corona is irresistibly vegetative in its suggestiveness, like the interlaced leaves, stems, and fantastic creatures of  an initial capital in the Book of Kells.  This intricate, tangled texture, extending over the entire canvas, is modeled in light and shade so that from a distance the glistening, varnished painting looks like a piece of carved, lacquered wood, with vague shadows (as of passing clouds) darkening the rich surface here and there.

     In this exquisite painting, the evocation in the figure-ground relationship not only stimulates the viewer's cognition in an especially vibrant way, but also has implications of a metaphysical sort.  An assertive figure on a recessive ground  implies that the actor is different from - and superior to - the environment:  the bird is more complex, more animated, more directed, more meaningful, than the sky through which it is flying.  In Corona, where the figure becomes ground, the values of complexity, animation, directedness, and meaning are transferred to the environment, the background, the totality.  The whole world becomes charged with vitality; there is drama everywhere, in everything, and on every scale, with no element more important than the other, for all are equally alive.  Rice's Corona shows that the figure-ground relationship is not merely a question of form - and it also shows how profound, on all levels of aesthetic communication, an abstract expressionist painting can be.