Local artist D'Metrius Rice
spreads out his recent acrylic paintings in a salon-style array in his apartment. Small versions of his brightly colored, heavily patterned panels are lined up on the floor. Large-format paintings are propped up on tables and chairs. Seen en masse, the work is a controlled chaos of almost childlike encounters filtered through a metaphysical search for meaning. The array represents the bulk of what Rice unveils at
, his first solo show, which opens this week at the Windup Space. The pieces date from late February 2010—just after Rice was mugged and beaten, in the same Station North neighborhood where he now lives—to the present.
Rice, now 31, had been working all day with a friend before they decided to hit a dance party over at the Copy Cat Annex. Liquor was involved. Rice had his bike with him but not his lock, so he stashed the bike at the Copy Cat building. When he went to retrieve it around 4 a.m., a group of guys—he thinks—was waiting for him. “And that’s where my memory just completely stops,” he says.
What he does recall: Rice threw his bike across the street but he doesn’t know why. Somebody tried to rob him and Rice said all he had was an empty wallet. Somebody said something that triggered a memory of a deep insult that came Rice’s way in high school. “And later, at 5 in the morning, some woman called the police near Lake Montebello because she thought there was a dead body in her front yard,” Rice says. “I had apparently been ditched in the front yard area of some apartment building. I was unconscious.”
Rice had a broken jaw and five skull fractures, and a small bone was dislodged in his left ear, affecting his hearing. He spent a week and a half in Johns Hopkins Hospital’s trauma unit and another three and a half weeks in another hospital before he could be released. When he got out he had to move in with his mother in the Washington, D.C., area to recover. While he healed, he started the body of work that makes up
. “I was wondering if I still had it, because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.
He moved back to Baltimore last August and landed back in Station North, which took some getting used to. But the mugging had some positive side effects. “It propelled me to make a really consistent practice out of being an artist, and I’m really happy with this body of work and where I’ve come from,” Rice says. “I really like this idea of harmony but a fracturalized harmony that’s true to the hits of life.”
From the array Rice has spread out in his apartment, it’s clear that much of his work is influenced by cartoons filtered through a philosophical ideal. “That weird head shape, that green head?” Rice says, pointing to a suggestion of a figure in one of his pieces. “That’s a combination of all four Ninja Turtles, but I’m mutating it slightly. You look at that and you think something’s slightly familiar about it—but what does it remind me of? The potentiality of an image is more powerful than what it actually is or what it actually means.”
The vocabulary of comics, cartoons, and advertisements informs his work, from the quality of the line to the intensity of the color palettes, but the ability of online culture to remix visual ideas also plays a part. He recognizes that such riffing works because we’re constantly reading and repurposing visual language. Memes, those online-propagated visual jokes-qua-satire, work because they reinvent an advertisement (or movie scene, still photograph, album cover, etc.) in a way that preserves part of its integrity but tweaks it just enough to decontextualize it.
As an example, Rice cites a meme that uses a still of Gene Wilder from
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
, where the actor is smiling and looking at the camera and one of the snarkily added captions reads, “Oh, I see you’re wearing a North Face jacket. You must go on so many adventures”—the snide observation being that North Face’s coolness has turned its outdoorsy purpose into a name-brand consumer fashion choice.
“That to me is the realm of the meme,” Rice says. “My images are inspired by that kind of mental and conceptual energy traveling that way. They’re very familiar aspects but the total thing is unfamiliar. It’s a new context but it’s. . . made up of elements of culture.”
A first brush with Rice’s work suggests it falls in step with the online art discussion that has been going on since
recently published sci-fi author Bruce Sterling’s “An Essay on the New Aesthetic,” about the “eruption of the digital into the physical.” Those responding to the essay differ as to whether or not what Sterling describes is new, but most believe that the digital worlds of video games and the internet have influenced contemporary artists. Rice notes such patterns in his own work: references to old Sega Genesis video games, colors suggesting online elements, layouts that kinda/sorta come from advertisements and web pages.
But his ideas are also very much pre-digital. “The way your memory works is kind of the way I present these images, in that we remember things, but we add our own information to the memories,” he says. “I’m trying to get across my ideas of spatial relationships and graphic relationships that are around me—that I see in ads, that I see in nature, that I see in reading materials—and fracturalizing them in a way that is intended to create a new experience for the viewer and not necessarily force a certain idea down their throats.
“I think some of the most powerful [ads] are TV and billboards on long road trips, when you’re confronted with these images,” he continues. “They’re designed to have your eye follow and move across certain parts at certain speeds. I’m interested in totally just jacking visual advertising techniques, that whole system of arranging things visually to compel you to figure out how it’s existing and how that is put together. What is underneath that?”
Artists have been “jacking” advertising for decades; what Rice adds to that mix is a personal investment in the fractured experience. When he talks about his work and its search for gleaning meaning from disorganized images, he speaks about it in very much the same way he talks about the experience of being mugged. “I have flash memories of it,” he says. Though Rice can’t clearly recall the incident, he’s discovered as a result that his art offers a way of exploring and understanding what life throws his way. “The whole experience changed me,” he says, “and where I’m coming from as a person.”