Vision Revisited_lowres

The geometric swirl of William Warren's Doorway to the Garden suggests an inner spirit within matter.

Visionary artists occupy a special niche in American culture, a zone where colorful and eccentric, even outrageous, personalities are the norm. This was especially true of visionary outsider artists such as our own Sister Gertrude Morgan or Georgia's Rev. Howard Finster, firebrands who believed they were on a mission from God and were not shy about saying so to whoever was willing to listen. But then there were also those more thoughtful and reclusive souls such as Walter Anderson, who while generally quite literate, or even well-educated, chose to pursue their own personal, inner vision regardless of prevailing art world fashions and conventions.

The late Stan Rice and the obviously alive William Warren fall into this latter category. Both are known for imagery that springs from some inner psychic state that is generally direct and expressionistic yet fundamentally personal, outside the mainstream of art market fashions. Warren, who with his artist wife, Pati D'Amico, presides over the Waiting Room Gallery in Bywater, says his most recent artworks "delve into the shamanlike nature of art," in which "luminous color and sweeping motion function as vehicles for the exploration of the exchange between spirit and matter," which sounds like a pretty tall order. In works such as Shield, a study in abstract aerodynamic geometry reminiscent of Joseph Stella in one of his more nonobjective moments, or Doorway to the Garden, a geometric swirl of chromatic luminosity, form and color do indeed suggest something animistic, an inner spirit within matter.

But in End and the Beginning (Homage to Bob Borsodi) and Spirit Dance (Homage to Daniel Breaux), figurative flourishes lend a spooky and highly personal touch to the compositions, invoking the spirits of those departed bohemian stalwarts. Actually, there are a lot of spooky spirit figures inhabiting these works, often painted in an oddly naive style that ranges from the painterly exploration of a primal scream to the emotive expressionistic conjurings of the inner child. It may not compute in terms of contemporary art trends, but for Warren it expresses something very fundamental to his visionary world view.

His earlier works tend to be more like surreal dream scenes, with classics such as Fefe's Monte Carlo displaying pleasantly zany riffs on themes of Ernst or Magritte in a nonetheless unique summation of the 20th century's cultural-industrial madness (or whatever else one might care to read into it). As with his more recent paintings, the range of these older works is varied and uneven, but, in true visionary manner, they typically suggest an expression of some deeply personal ruminations.

In the case of Rice, an established poet who was the husband of well-known novelist Anne Rice, the work on view at the gallery that bears his name is a mix of some of his earliest efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s as well as some of the last pieces produced before his death in 2002. None have ever been shown before, and all illustrate the artist's habit of pursuing each painting as a goal unto itself and not as part of an ongoing series. Be that as it may, all reveal the fresh, direct and often rather raw energy that was his trademark. Flight Out of Bethlehem (2002) is surprisingly topical, an image of Mary and the baby Jesus fleeing a modern Bethlehem replete with Israeli soldiers in helmets and body armor. Ironic of course, but irony was Rice's calling card. Even so, Hog (2002), a gnarly visionary impression of a pig rendered in convoluted flourishes of radioactive salmon, rose and green is psychedelic in effect, a study in sensory overkill. An untitled self-portrait, in which he appears as a hipster in a Hawaiian shirt with a leering, manic grin, suggests someone who might paint such an painting, even though Rice himself was actually a genteel, refined gentleman. And at this point the usual procedure would be to contrast such works with his earlier efforts, paintings such as his 1990 Man and Elephant or his 1991 The Evangelist Meets His Makers. Yet his early works display no obvious disparities with his later paintings. Although his style might vary a bit from work to work, the sensibility seen in each was quite consistent, expressionistic and immediate, of a piece.