William Brice, who had not exhibited new paintings since his 1986 retrospective at L.A. MOCA, returned in this show with his boldest, most exuberant works to date. Associated in the ’50s with L.A. artists Rico Lebrun and Howard Warshaw, Brice came into his own in the ’70s with canvases featuring subtly colored, refined pictographic shapes as well as images derived from ancient Greek and Mediterranean sculptural fragments. Brice retains some of those forms, suggestive of classical columns and priapic altars, in his new works. Overall his paintings, rendered in a crisp graphic style in fully saturated reds, yellows, blues and oranges, reveal a new kind of celebratory confidence.
The paintings’ stark color contrasts evoke Matisse’s late cutouts, whose brisk immediacy and joyous eroticism they share. A gallery of small colored-ink drawings, called “Notations” (all works 1997-98), demonstrated Brice’s process for working out the arrangements of the forms that appear in the large paintings. His compositions are generally organized around two opposed groupings of pictographs, often divided by a stack or row of circles. The circles are filled with dots, Brice’s shorthand for the burgeoning cell divisions of procreation.
Sexual imagery abounds, often with lightning-bolt zigzags separating forms with masculine or feminine associations. In one work a bright yellow lightning bolt vertically separates a lipstick-red dress like shape from an architectonic stack featuring two huge blue balls. The largest painting in the show presents a phallic piston shape immersed in a cavity made from two female torsos. Underscoring this charged-up imagery, a big purple piston on the right side of the painting thrusts downward, pointing toward a simply delineated riverscape.
Brice’s pictographs evoke a world charged with sexual energy. In his ink and crayon drawings, shown in the upstairs gallery, the outlines of massive torsos seem to unravel, conveying a surprising fragility and intimacy. In another of the large paintings, an upright rib cage and spinal column are juxtaposed with an egglike womb. Set against a primary red background, these symbols together seem to engender a stack of burgeoning cells. Linking painting with procreation, Brice celebrates a sort of erotic biology.