For more than twenty years, the unassuming Rice Gallery on Rice University’s campus has been a jewel in the city: a one room, exclusively site-specific space. It’s internationally admired for the care and atmosphere of the shows. Unfortunately, Rice Gallery is closing as a much larger and flashier arts center has opened on campus. While I’m sure the new center is and will be impressive (and probably like most new university centers, seem to be uncannily rendered in CGI rather than built), the small but dense Rice Gallery will be missed.
In an elegant circular touch—I do appreciate when spaces execute the prestige—Rice Gallery has brought back one of its earliest shows, Sol Lewitt’s Glossy and Flat Black Squares #813. Lewitt’s famed wall drawings were conceptual and could be recreated by Lewitt’s own instructions. In this way Lewitt’s wall drawings are akin to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Terry Riley’s In C, pieces where the rigorousness of the instructions allow for endless, expansive interpretations is the piece.
In the newest installation, each of the three walls of the gallery has a black square (one wall holds two) that’s evenly divided in some formation—one side is flat, one side is glassy. In the true style of the minimal masters (Judd, Irwin etc.) such a simple set-up contains multitudes. The catalogue states: “Glossy and Flat Black Squares is painted directly on Rice Gallery’s pre-existing walls; nothing was changed to accommodate them. Their scale and proportion fit into and expand within the work’s architectural container, thus echoing, reverberating, and drawing attention to the fundamental qualities of spatial experience.” This is all true, and once inside the space, one most fully appreciates the dimensions and graceful proportions of the gallery.
But the show does not end there; the precision of the installation is a launchpad. The glossy sides of the square make great use of the bright halogen lighting in the gallery, creating inky pools and reflections of oneself, the other squares and the room itself. These dreamy and unsettling “parallel spaces” abruptly ends when one moves past the flat sides of the square. Given that this a posthumous piece (Lewitt died in 2007), the show functions as a lucid, fluid metaphorical experience of death. But the depths and luminosity of the glassy squares and the transporting surreal quality of the sequence from glassy to flat brings to mind the oceanic planet of Solaris, the black gel trap of Under the Skin, the abysses looming in the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft—that elemental science-fiction of the unknown.
It is fitting that the modest yet noble Rice Gallery should conclude its run with a show that really demonstrates how much you can do with a single room.
Through May 14 at Rice Gallery, Houston. Images via Rice Gallery.