D'Metrius Rice steals, borrows, appropriates, and misappropriates to arrive at original visual language

D'Metrius Rice: Psychokinesis

At the Metro Gallery through Sept. 14

The figure that appears in D'Metrius Rice's acrylic-on-panel painting "Motion Censor," currently on view in his Psychokinesis solo show at the Metro Gallery, is little more than a spasmodic scrawl. Well, there's an assumption being made that the blue shape in the lower left-hand quadrant is figurative. A limb-like appendage juts out from the lower half of the shape that is vaguely humanish, and it appears to end with a shod foot. Just above the figure is what could be a vase filled with flowers. And that brown rhombus is perhaps a table. And that swoosh of orange that jaggedly bleeds into gun-metal gray then into peach provides a gestural action that lends the title some context. There's a jazzy play of color and form going on, as if Rice has conscientiously abstracted the human form and is encouraging color to evoke shape as much as mood, that puts Rice's vocabulary very much in a modernist vein of-wait a second, could it possibly be?-later Matisse.

Full disclosure: I have no empirical evidence to claim that Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse is the most loathed artist of all time, but I do know what I can't stand. Blame it on Baltimore being lousy with examples of French Impressionism and artists who pushed its ideas into modernism, blame it on a horrible "relationship" years back with a woman who lined her bedroom in Matisse reproductions-including that tra-la-la hokum known as "The Dance" that should've been a giveaway to pull the ripcord much earlier-blame it on the fact that I've grown up in the museum-gift-shop era that has bought into the branding overkill business model and placed Matisse imagery on an endless stream of knickknacks and tchotchkes. For whatever the reasons, Matisse feels like McDonald's: He's everywhere and it's always the same. Francis Bacon, often the 20th-century's most unforgiving painter, said it best when talking about Matisse's later works during interviews collected in Michael Peppiatt's 2008 book Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait: "I loathe them. I can never see what there is to it, with all those squalid little forms." Hear, hear.

Of course, a personal blind spot is simply that, the baggage that one viewer brings to looking. No idea if Rice has been giving thought to Matisse or Picasso or whatever artist who might not be the most popular reference point today-that's precisely the reason to raid a catalogue raissonné. Who outside of grad school may be interested? Who cares. Artists should steal, borrow, appropriate, misappropriate, and question art's history in every way they can, and what Rice does in his acrylic paintings here is hijack Matisse's abstraction of form, Picasso's primitivism, and the compositional anarchy of comic books and cartoons, and significantly begins forging his own inscrutable vocabulary.

This fact is most evident in a handful of the acrylic works, and more so in the color than the black-and-white pieces, which stood out in his Meme Schemes exhibition last year but now look more like developmental ideas leading up to the work here. In black-and-white pieces such as the acrylic-and-cut paper "Gabriel" or the acrylic-on-paper "Manual Operator," you can see Rice working out compositional elements and form combinations in dense configurations, as if he's seeing how many snippets of different ideas he can squeeze into a semicoherent thought. In "Manual Operator," a square pattern of polygons takes shape around a grid of shapes that's offset by a smooth, thin curve that leads the eye to other shapes and forms. It's a busy composition that doesn't care for a resolution, like an impressive saxophone solo that isn't playing off any other instrument, and as a result it feels like rushing out on a journey without knowing where to go.

When he moves to color and works equally as busy but with a more assured composition control, the results aren't just impressive but, in two instances, quite breathtaking. "Theater" and "CD Burner" are the strongest works here, and they show Rice approaching a Christian Schumann and Trenton Doyle Hancock singularity. "CD Burner" offers a six-rows-by-eight-columns grid of what appear to be silvery discs, but upon close inspection each reveals itself to be an incredibly detailed amalgamation of radial brushstrokes of color. It looks like a painstaking piece, and the grid layout initially brings to mind Wayne Thiebaud's "Cakes" painting from 1963, with one important, startling difference. The precision of Rice's lines is less polished, and they appear intentionally imperfect, for as the eye moves from left to right, top to bottom, the discs in the grid appear to deteriorate, until the discs in the last row and last two columns aren't discs at all: They're coagulating smudges, as if the hand making them grew incapable of continuing. The effect is quietly grand. The panel's dominant colors are an assortment of muted neons, a palette often employed by a great deal of digital art, and Rice cannily replicates digital art's onscreen precision-but only up to a point, allowing the gestural imperfections of the hand to creep in at the last minute. Fatigue is an elusive idea to convey visually, and Rice does so in a sneaky way here.

"Theater," on the other hand, is a bombastic display of confidence. Its composition recalls a four-panel comic on a single page, and in each Rice unleashes a skillful command of the ideas he's explored in other pieces in the show: a colorfully Matissean abstracted-form collage in the lower left of the panel, a prismatic figure in the lower right that straddles the folkloric and the cubist, a combination of those two approaches in the upper right quadrant, and in the top left a patterned swirl of colors that looks like an multicolored, all-fur beast, Cousin It's feral id. It's a piece that works as both a graphic narrative that tells a story in mood more than language and as a single, imposing image-an invitation to get lost in somebody else's mind-maze that might not offer you a way out.

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