Leland Rice

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Amer­ican (b. 1940)

Leland Rice studied at Arizona State Univer­sity and Cali­fornia State Univer­sity, receiving an M.A. in 1969. He imme­di­ately began his teaching career, founding the photog­raphy depart­ment at the Cali­fornia College of Arts and Crafts at Oakland, where he was a great influ­ence for many young photog­ra­phers. In the early seven­ties, Rice began making portraits, inten­tion­ally strip­ping them of their rela­tion­ship to external events and attempting to realize them as pure objects. He then started to focus on envi­ron­ments, including many images of chairs; in these works, the artist attempted to allude to the human pres­ence without including it.

Rice began the Wall Site series in 1973, first in black and white and then in color. They are all set in his studio and feature simple arrange­ments of objects against the studio wall. Light radi­ates from the wall, giving the prosaic scenes almost a spir­i­tual weight. In 1983, Rice began to docu­ment the soon-to-be-demol­ished Berlin Wall, and continued to do so until 1991; his photographs are a complete record of paint­ings, graf­fiti, and other accretia on the Wall.

A respected curator and collector, as well as artist and teacher, Rice curated Photographs of Moholy-Nagy, the first major Amer­ican exhi­bi­tion of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s photographs and photograms, which trav­eled to museums from 1975 through 1979 and was accom­pa­nied by his cata­logue. Rice has also curated major museum exhi­bi­tions with publi­ca­tions of photog­raphy by Herbert Bayer, Fred­erick Sommer and Frances Benjamin John­ston. He taught photog­raphy at the College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland (where he founded the photog­raphy depart­ment); in Southern Cali­fornia at Pomona College, UCLA and USC; and Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art.

Los Angeles Times May 12, 1985
Leland Rice Goes To The Wall — in Berlin by Suzzanne Muchnic

Los Angeles photog­ra­pher Leland Rice has had his face to the wall for years, turning ordi­nary barriers or walls of an artist’s studio into painterly abstrac­tions of striking subtlety and lyrical beauty. In the four years since he last showed his work at Rosamund Felsen’s gallery in West Holly­wood, he has trained his camera on other subjects, but his interest in walls – “my obses­sion,” he calls it – hasn’t faded.

Now he’s back at the gallery with a show of new work (through June 1), based on a wall that is not only the 20th Century’s most loathed struc­ture but – so far as I know – the world’s largest publicly produced painting. Covered with layers of picto­graphic art, symbols, poetry and slogans, the west side of the wall that divides Berlin has become a 99-mile-long canvas that receives commu­ni­ca­tions from all who arrive there with spray cans, pencils, marking pens and a passion to express them­selves.
Photographing the Berlin Wall might seem an obvious move for Rice, but it’s also a signif­i­cant depar­ture. While working in Germany, he shifted his focus from the benignly anony­mous to a hateful symbol of humankind’s divi­sive­ness. Instead of producing soft-colored Ektachrome abstrac­tions with strong ties to color field painting, he has made rela­tively hard Cibachrome images with strong graphic qual­i­ties. Quiet formal abstrac­tions have given way to pictures rever­ber­ating with social context. And the inaudible sugges­tion of human pres­ence in his earlier work has become a clam­orous – if still unseen – reality.

If going to a wall so loaded with social impli­ca­tions allowed Rice to continue finding art in manmade fortresses, it also satis­fied a self-confessed longing. “I’ve not felt a deep commit­ment to subject matter for four years,” he said in an inter­view in the gallery. “Some­thing was missing in the early ‘80s. I wanted to get closer to some­thing that would deal with human life – some­thing that would be more engaging and pene­trate what’s on our minds. Without disen­gaging myself from my formal back­ground, I wanted some­thing deeper.”

Looking around the gallery at pictures of multi­lin­gual writ­ings and wall paint­ings depicting every­thing from Felix the Cat to an upside-down, Georg Baselitz-style man, Rice continued, “This work wasn’t planned and it isn’t related to the German Neo-Expres­sion­ists. That connec­tion is just a coin­ci­dence.”

Or a case of serendipity, as Rice tells it. “I went to Hamburg in November of 1983 to produce a dye transfer port­folio of my earlier work. Because I was there specif­i­cally for that, I didn’t even take a camera. After a month, I got frus­trated (with compli­ca­tions of working with a German studio), so I borrowed a camera and jumped on an airplane to Berlin.

Being the dumb Amer­ican that I was, I didn’t even know that the city wasn’t on the border between East and West Germany. I had heard that there was a lot of inter­esting action at the wall, but I went there just like every other visitor goes there. When I saw it, I was totally magne­tized. It’s just incom­pre­hen­sible for anyone from a free society.”

Friends had directed Rice to a heavily painted area of the the wall where Turkish immi­grants have gath­ered. Among writ­ings ordering “Turks Out” (in German), he found a boggling array of visual mate­rial waiting to be photographed. But Rice works slowly and on that visit he only got three or four of the pictures in his current exhi­bi­tion.

Another year passed before he could return to Germany. It was November again and the weather was miser­able, but each day he took a bus, hiked through the Turkish settle­ment and took pictures along a roughly three-mile length of the wall. What he found was a constantly flux­u­ating scene. Unusual light condi­tions provided some deci­sive moments that would not return on later visits and new paint­ings oblit­er­ated previous ones.
“I never felt threat­ened. I was never accosted, and although I don’t speak German, language was never a barrier,” he said. He has been surprised and often delighted to discover the mean­ings of the words he photographed, but that wasn’t his reason for taking partic­ular pictures. “I wanted to be free to respond to picto­rial rela­tion­ships. I didn’t want language to become an issue in composing. I can only account for some of the mean­ings as logical happen­stances.”

Though refer­ences to German artists Baselitz and Joseph Beuys appear in two of his pictures, Rice says he also tried to avoid photographing conscious art-making, such as murals that have been painted on the wall by artists. He also steered clear of heavily polit­ical sloga­neering. What appealed to him was a kind of “folk art” and “a kinetic activity” that he thought had the char­acter of music. “The wall seemed to be a sort of street theater perfor­mance,” he said.

Rice found comedy and pathos painted on the wall, even as he observed people who would drive their cars to the barrier on week­ends to stroll along it and exer­cise their dogs. Iron­i­cally, he sees his journey to the Berlin wall as a freeing influ­ence. “When you travel, you get the feeling that there are no barriers or restric­tions. You can just respond and you think there’s a whole new world out there.”

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