By the early 1990’s, the work transformed to declarations, or celebrations, of sexuality itself—libido, yes, but also fertility, procreation, and an ineluctable “life force,” variously depicted as interpenetrating male and female genital-like shapes, eggs and sperms, zygotes, and embryonic forms. In the 1990’s, these paintings grew larger in size and scale, morphing into grand pictograms that straddle a psychological ground somewhere between orgiastic and sacral.
In his final works, a profusion of mostly black-and-white drawings from the 2000’s until his death in 2008, Brice transformed his philosophical enquiry into a near metaphysical contemplation. Retaining a kind of liminal philosophical tone, these works are loosely reminiscent of snippets of Persian carpets filled, as Brice’s son describes it, “with personally codified patterns which seem to offer a mystical meaning that only Bill Brice knew.”
ANTIQUITY/MODERNITY: THE PAST IN THE PRESENT
A popular refrain in American parlance is “That was then; this is now”—which connotes that what had applied to an earlier circumstance is irrelevant to, and disconnected to, current reality. But that is a mindset which has little bearing on William Brice’s sense of art history. He would have no doubt agreed with William Faulkner’s line in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Brice’s art, the present—our present—co-exists with all of human history and with universal human experience, as it has always been expressed in art from prehistoric times to today. The present is not merely what happens today but is connected—especially through all of the arts—to what has constituted human experience, whatever its particulars might be.
His scenarios—such as arrangements of stones on a ledge, verdant landscapes, or pictograms of nudes suggesting polar (yin-yang relationships)—are all timeless, existing as visual and emotional assertions, almost like constellations representing mythic deities and events in the heavens. They are less narratives of specific places, moments, or persons than they are icons of those things—visual representations of timeless realities, powers and relationships.
Brice’s art seems less intent on catapulting such perpetual subjects into our contemporary world than on asserting their timelessness in his stylized presentations of them. He attempts to make real, in stylistically modern depiction, a contemporary connection to humanity’s collective past: as Brice has remarked [MoCA Walkthrough, 1986], “something that I really believe in very strongly…[is] to participate in the continuity of art.”
DUALITY: ANGST AND ENLIGHTENMENT
Dichotomy is at the essence of William Brice’s art, his themes, and his personality.
As art historian David Stuart Rodes has reflected, at the heart of William Brice’s art is a “lyricism that lies on top of a fierce and almost primitive [power]”—a kind of “elegant savagery.” He also comments, “Brice introduces us to a world that is cryptic and revelatory, ancient and fresh, grave and playful….” About his friend, Rodes observes, “The absolute center of Bill’s power as an artist [was the] struggle or this tension in Bill between that thing that all of us loved about him—the almost Fred Astaire lyricism in his personality—and then a kind of fierce, intense, perhaps even dark sexual energy that lay beneath that…” [For more information, please see: David Rodes, Lyricism that Hides a Fierce, Demonic, Primitive Power, video interview, 2010, WillilamBrice.com/Library/Videos]
Struggle and grace. Burden and balance. Apartness and togetherness. Angst and trust. These are all overarching dualities that patently exist in Brice’s art and which provoke viewers’ responses to it. Brice stands firmly in mid-twentieth century modernism with its historical dialogue between issues—ideologies, really—of abstraction and representation; they are issues he explored throughout his prolific creative life. But while so many of his contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, or John Altoon seemed to brood in a world of existential anxiety, Brice seems to have been entrenched in—or entranced by—a world view that recognized, embraced, and was unified by—not riven by—such polarities. Out of his conjoining the impenetrable conflict of these dualities Brice’s art offers a kind of enlightened acceptance of, or some internalized resolution of, irreconcilable antipathies.
Just as Brice willingly—perhaps willfully—embraced both abstraction and representation stylistically in his art, he intuitively understood and probed the inherent affinities between what are often regarded as conceptual and psychological opposites but that can also be understood as functions of each other. His art is full of contradiction and paradox; yet it reflects the real complexity and actual implausibility of happenstance that may knit even the most unseemly relationships of ideas, conditions, and events in life as we live it every day.
allegory: a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition) [ < Greek allo-, a combining form meaning “other”]
Much of the essential content of William Brice’s art is allegorical, setting forth a visual image that connotes something other than what is depicted. His several still-lifes from the mid-1940’s depicting
arrangements of stones that he collected during walks along the Pacific coast in Malibu seem, at first glance, to be nothing more than visually compelling arrangements of those stones. Yet, they bear a weightier meaning than their rock-y substance suggests: they are biomorphic forms, plainly evocative of human bodies—torsos, limbs, and internal and sexual organs—posed and poised in relation to one another. Residing in their shallow, frontal spaces, they are friezes, of a sort, allegorically representing human relationships in groupings that suggest ancient Greek friezes. But instead of depicting mythological or historical events, Brice’s painted “friezes” of stones evoke human bodies reclining on one another, studying one another, attracted to and responsive to one another.
Brice did not initially set out to deploy allegory as a calculated art-making strategy; rather, it reflects the way he innately saw things and recorded his observations. As Brice himself reflected,
“…I was never really interested in the aspect of the explicit configuration, but rather something that could be an association and stand for more than one thing at one time…there’s also the aspect of the, perhaps, a nonspecific iconography that is something that isn’t actually one thing but could have a possibility of being a number of things at one time.”