Tivon Rice's official entrance into the world of commercial galleries, dealers, and collectors is a story of birth starting with a single cell. You'll see this cell, this origin point, last. It's the smallest and least attention-getting piece in Rice's first solo show at Lawrimore Project. The four other works, large sculptural light installations that seem to grow developmentally, graduate from the dimensions of a human body in the earliest work to the size of a small room in the most recent. In each case, the work of art positions the viewer in some relation to televisual monitors—peeping at them through a narrow passageway, watching them as if seated in front of a Cineplex screen, standing inside a single pixel.
But in the beginning, there is Untitled. If Josef Albers had his squares and Alex Katz has his wife, Ada, then Rice has the cathode ray tube, the object and shape he's been mining continuously for the last two years. Television is nicknamed "the tube" because of the CRT, the funnel of glass behind the screen that images bounce off of in order to be projected and seen. Rice isn't the first artist to use the CRT (Trimpin, for example, hung them in an installation at the Seattle Asian Art Museum last year), but Rice specializes in a rarely seen subspecies: the diminutive CRT monitors that are imported cheaply from China and used for, say, tailgate parties, where a rudimentary image will do the job.
Untitled is a double casting of one CRT tube, lying on a shelf. The functioning tube is encased in clear plastic. That cast is conjoined to a translucent mirror image of itself, causing a visual palindrome that tapers at both ends. The screen is in the center, projecting a basic vertical hold that lights the translucent half a luminous, flickering bluish-white. In the darkened gallery, the other half is unlit except for the glowing curls of copper where the CRT attaches to its energy source.
This simple juxtaposition of light and dark is rich with meanings, like a series of dichotomous inquiries laid out neatly on a shelf: matter and energy, machine and spirit, body and mind. Untitled is Rice's icon, as dazzling and architectural in its way as the Chrysler building, which its pointed ends resemble, or James Turrell's skyspaces.
Everything in the show flows from the CRT's form and its function as a cavern where images are made. Philo's Cave, a vertical row of small screens with long funnel noses, refers to Plato and to Philo T. Farnsworth of Rigby, Idaho, who invented the television in the 1920s.
The History of Television is a row of double-castings like the one in Untitled, set upright, with the translucent upper half shaped as Buddhas. It's an homage to Nam June Paik's TV Buddha (1974), in which a statue of Buddha sits facing its own image on a closed-circuit TV screen. Rice reproduces his Buddhas, each one more bloated and distorted than the last. The implication is not only that TV makes couch potatoes of us, but that video art has itself gone slack, or at the very least, that its delivery system is no different from a soap opera's. Rice's antidote, unfortunately, feels overly, almost didactically, stringent, the Buddhas tethered to earth in an austere metal armature straight out of Carl Andre minimalism rather than hanging from the ceiling, on the ends of taut and slack cords, as they did in a more poetic incarnation at 4Culture in December.
Transcendentalism and technology seem central to Rice's project. But his relation to physical bodies and affective human experience is less resolved, even absent. In Apotheosis—the large grid of screens cast in the bulbous shapes of extruded CRT forms that made a splash at the MFA show last spring (but are far better grasped in the stadium-seating room at Lawrimore)—red, intestinal lights turn to skyish blues in a linear, repeating nine-minute sequence. The filmic depiction of ascension seems to bear little relation to the extruded sculptural forms, which call to mind Eva Hesse's Ringaround Arosie from 1965 and Louise Bourgeois's marble sculptures resembling penises, breasts, and eyes all at once.
Does Rice's work feel cold because he's still prying around in the chilly basements of video art and sculpture, or does he associate feeling with the depredations of TV culture? Will he come to articulate an alternative that draws together mediated and direct experience, the way Gary Hill has?
His newest installation, Resolution, begins to find a way. It is formally tightly conceived—three piles of extruded CRT casts form macro-extruded-CRT mounds. Computer screens inside the mounds change color, following cues from a mainframe program channeling single pixels from the movie Tron (chosen for its color saturation). The mounds light up red, blue, and green, the colors that combine to form a pixel, and when they glow in the dark gallery, the ceiling becomes a screen showing a single combined-color pixel of Tron. The least saturated moments turn the hive-like mounds into grisaille, or gray-scale, sculptures. You stand where the mounds meet, inside what you see.