“If Pigs Could Fly”

The blurb on the book jacket flap describes it as “Vivid, passionate, primitive ... .  Childlike, ironic, and darkly humorous — they attest to the original vision of a talented poet and painter.”  What the blurb does not say, at least not explicitly, is that this big, hefty, glossily attractive coffee table book is a mystery object, an art world and publishing paradox.

That much is evident in the paintings themselves: bold, bright and even garish concoctions that suggest the work of an untrained folk artist with a sophisticated expressionist outlook.  The tone is visceral in a way that recalls the deadpan humor and word games of the old time San Francisco Bay-area beat poets, but the execution is pointedly, almost defiantly, raw.  The figures and settings are almost crudely rendered, and the brilliant, sometimes gaudy colors appear as a melee of clashing polychrome tonalities.  An example of no known school, they are the mental offspring of a poet who just happens to be the spouse of novelist Anne Rice.

“I can do this because my wife is rich,” Stan Rice once remarked in the elegantly austere confines of the Stan Rice Gallery on Prytania Street.  The gallery is part of the St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage complex, a hulking, high-Victorian, block-square compound overflowing with Anne Rice’s collections of dolls and gothic memorabilia.  Within that milieu, the gallery and its paintings are an enigmatic presence, a gathering of vaguely modernist gargoyles guarding the side door on to Prytania Street.

Occasionally someone tries to buy one only to be rebuffed.  Sorry, the paintings are not for sale.  Rice sometimes gives them away, however, as he did recently when the New Orleans Museum of Art tried to arrange a purchase.  If this sounds like improbable behavior even for someone who doesn’t need the money, it all goes to back to his inner quest, his pursuit of something as luminously vivid, yet evanescent, as a mirage.

“I’m really an autodidact in both fields, in both poetry and painting.  There were no books in my house when I was growing up, but I sat down and wrote things that basically just jumped my bones,” Rice says, referring to his earliest creative impulses.  “I knew that there was a way to use language that was highly physical and visual.  I didn’t know the masters, but I knew that if you put the words down in what I later learned were called metaphors, it made the words feel like they had hands.  They were on you.  They were on your eyes.  They were physicalized.”

Rice says the same impulses, what he calls “a hunger for the vivid,” always guided his painting, but his work as a department chairman at San Francisco State University made it impossible for him to spend much time at it.  That all changed, however, in 1988.

“I looked at my life and said, OK, I’m making as much in a year as Anne is making in a month on books she’s already written.  And that’s when the painting moved from the back burner to the front burner.”

Now instead of going to work at the university, Rice works 9 to 5 on his paintings.  And instead of simply being a not very understood self-taught poet, Rice is now a not very understood self-taught painter, as well.

The book is filled with enigmatic images like “The Poker Hands,” a roughly executed view of three gents playing poker with Bee brand cards as a swarm of real bees circles overhead, or “The Flying Pig,” a visual interpretation of a pink airborne pig that is loosely based on one of his old poems of the same name.  All of his paintings are rendered with a deadpan irony that goes back to his “apparitional” sense of metaphor, something he experiences as “an epiphany, a moment of astonishment.”

Like the characters in his wife’s occult novels, his paintings seem to have a life of their own.  And it’s a highly colorful life, at that.  “I’m just painting it so that I’ll be able to look at it over and over again,” says Rice, “and to me, that has always meant really colorful.”  Acknowledging that he “didn’t have time to get good,” he seeks his own kind of greatness through the sheer intensity of his vision and the animistic vitality of his pallette.

To that end, the book has been the embodiment of a dream.  “Cars didn’t make me happy, houses didn’t make me happy, clothes didn’t make me happy,” says Rice.  “But making a book that would contain 113 of my paintings, now that made me happy.”  The result is yet another enigmatic phenomenon, another chapter in Stan Rice’s quest for the vivid.  Or as he puts it: “I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate nature.  I can’t paint exaggeratedly enough to be like reality... .”

Gambit Weekly
November 7, 2000