We generally think of an “underground artist” as a Bohemian figure. The public knows him little, if at all. He is held in awe by members of his subculture. He is personally impressive, does good work and endures obscurity.
The Bohemian underdog makes longterm sense in the modern romance of the artist because we assume eventually he is going to win. From Van Gogh to the Beat poets, heroes started out obscure and rejected. Eventually they triumphed. They were ahead of times that eventually had to honor them in retrospect.
There is another kind of underground artist who is rarer and more elusive. Nobody can figure out quite what he is up to. He does not seem to be gambling on historical redemption, playing career games or seeking disciples. He seems to simply act out his notion of the obligations of a real artist. At its highest level, that conception is simply that one makes the best art he can, free of any other motivation. He has an elevated sense of achievement and absolutely no sense of career.
Simple goodness is so rare in this world that when encountered it appears utterly mysterious. William Brice has been baffling the art world hereabouts for almost three decades by simply going about the business of making his art and helping others make their art.
He has left several generations of UCLA art students (including this reporter) feeling irredeemably gawky but fired with idealism by his urbanity, eloquence and empathy. If Wally Berman was the very model of the artist as Bohemian poet, Brice is the platonic ideal of the unassuming aristocrat. Noblesse oblige. I was once stuck on a lowly commercial-art project and Brice came down to help sort it out. Nothing comparable happened until Sadat went to Israel.
Brice is stuck in the art world in an uncultivated position as a respected figure. That may have nothing to do with his art, but it has a great deal to do with art in general. He gives the whole thing some class.
Exhibitions of his work are so rare they amount to events. The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art has one through Nov. 30, including 26 sizable paintings and a superb group of drawings.
At a superficial scan, Brice’s work is vulnerable to attack as eclectic and retardataire. Matisse, Picasso and Gorky are everywhere, along with occasional visits from Henry Moore. Brice, however, does not seem derivative. He seems like a man who speaks a certain language‚ probably French‚ that is shared by many other speakers. The issue is not that he speaks French, but that he speaks magnificently and in accents that are profoundly personal.
No knowledgeable viewer can look at Brice’s line and remain unimpressed. It moves tenderly around an awkward rectangle that transforms into a woman’s torso with wise and sober wit. His simplifications of form move beyond Matisse’s late cutouts, frankly saying “Matisse” so we do not forget tradition.
But here is none of Matisse’s flowering color. Small paintings allow hues but big canvases are in dirty whites and browns feathered out with the thoughtful elegance of cigarette smoke. Forms are lined out, volumes scrubbed in.
The image of woman is everywhere, charging these civilized images with primitive imaginings, cycladic and longingly Dionysian. Her genital becomes cactus, cathedral and rock. The torso is a broken classical column.
Everything is shot through with a kind of sexual languor and agony that harks back to the existentialist generation. The romance of the civilized intellectual loner is everywhere mocked by the need for passion and love.
They are extraordinarily moving paintings and because they fix themselves so firmly in a tradition they speak for a generation and its beliefs. They are the intellectual guru in “La Dolce Vita,” they are Cary Grant, and Brando in “Last Tango in Paris.” They are haunted throughout by an element of classical tragedy.