Travis Rice “Self-Portrait”
Written by Liz Lidgett
In his works, Des Moines artist Travis Rice often distorts landscapes and buildings, turning them into geometric shapes and bent figures—the result, perhaps, of his education and experience in landscape architecture and design.
His self-portrait reflects his signature style of wavy and digital figures, yet it’s skewed somehow. Both realistic and expressionistic, the black-and-white oil painting features the artist’s face in a puddle of square ripples and odd shapes. The wavy image conveys a hypnotic sensation of motion.
“These were some of the first oil paintings I (had) ever done, so I stuck with black-and-white just to force me to understand how to create value,” says Rice, who earned a degree in landscape architecture from Ball State University and did graduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design. “This is a pretty common approach at first for a lot of artists. You see it in Chuck Close’s first pieces as well as Gerhard Richter’s.” To that point, his self-portrait has some of Close’s photorealism and Richter’s kinetic energy.
Despite those influences, though, he mainly created his self-portrait because “I was just out of ideas … so I painted what I was most familiar with—my face,” the 45-year-old Rice confesses. “I think this is actually why a lot of artists end up doing self-portraits. They are just out of ideas.”
Rice swears that there is no message behind his work: “Meaning and theory play no role in what I make, and I generally feel they are the pursuit of the fool,” he says. But one of the intriguing questions the self-portrait raises is why his face is distorted and why it looks like we are seeing a face from a dream—or a nightmare.
Viewers will have to decide that on their own. For Rice, the work is about the process, not the message. “Since I work from a formalist standpoint, I created a system as a way to paint this particular picture, and that is really what the piece is about,” says Rice, who has taught design at Iowa State University. “It started as a simple grid that I warped and then offset. It’s the same process the architect may pursue starting with the strict geometry of Mies, adding a Corbu curve and finally landing at the ridiculous in Gehry.”
Although Rice’s architecture and design training may be evident in his work, “artists are prewired to be artists even if they try to live life being something else,” he says. “The art always comes out somewhere or somehow. It’s a hard thing to deny.”
Pat Edwards “Goblin”
Written by Liz Lidgett
About a year and a half ago, artist Pat Edwards moved to Des Moines after living in Iowa City for 23 years. The move inspired her self-portrait “Goblin.”
The work “was started in my studio in Iowa City and finished here in my studio (in Des Moines),” Edwards says. “It has to do specifically with leaving the Iowa City studio and generally with the sometimes uncomfortable process of making art.”
Many of Edwards’ self-portraits focus solely on her face and upper body (see image, page 113). In this piece, her entire body is included because the space around her—her Iowa City studio—is significant. The work is like a kind of still life, a snapshot of her life and surroundings at that moment.
Edwards believes that making self-portraits is a combination of impulse and need. “In school, I was a drawing major,” says Edwards, who earned B.F.A., M.A. and M.F.A. degrees from the University of Iowa. “This meant almost daily access to the model through repeated life drawing classes. When I left school, I was acutely aware of the loss of life drawing. I turned to a mirror and myself. … On a practical basis, I’m always available as a model.”
While she has created many drawings, this work is an oil painting on a linen canvas. Her drawing process involves layers of erasing and redrawing, and she carried that process over to the paints. Oil paints take much longer to dry than acrylic paints, so they can be layered and manipulated over a period of time. Painting also allows her to add color in ways she can’t when she’s drawing. “It’s one more factor that adds a layer of meaning and complexity,” she says.
“Goblin” consists of shades of gray mixed with complementary colors. The work “is essentially a black-and-white image,” she says. “That fact, I think, adds to the meaning.”
The piece provides a peek into Edwards’ everyday life and work. She is wearing clothes that she doesn’t mind getting paint on and working in a space she loved. The Kentucky native hopes to re-create a similar studio space in her new home in Des Moines, a move spurred by her and her husband’s desire to be closer to family.
Whenever Edwards experiences an important moment in her life, she finds it grounding to create a self-portrait: “Just moving my hand with the paint reminds me who I am, for better or for worse, and reminds me how to paint, all over again.”
Jordan Weber “Refined Melanization”
Written by Christine Riccelli
Jordan Weber’s self-portrait reflects not only how he sees himself, but also how he views the world.
“There really are a lot of angles to it,” says the 29-year-old Des Moines artist and activist. “It sums up every piece I’ve done for the past six or seven years. It’s the totality of everything I’ve been trying to express.”
One view of the work and you quickly realize that he’s not exaggerating. The complex, ethereal-looking piece maps Weber’s spiritual, intellectual and artistic journey, and it also documents his social concerns, ranging from the appropriation of black culture to the destruction of the environment. Evolution and extinction are recurring themes.
The name of the work itself, “Refined Melanization,” reflects his mixed-race heritage. “Melanin is a (natural pigment) that makes things dark,” he says, but his African-American heritage has been “refined” over three generations; he also has ancestors of European and Apache descent.
In addition to the title, the work’s symbols and imagery show how history and broader cultural forces have shaped Weber’s identity and informed his views. For example:
- The figure of Zarathustra just below his throat and the I Ching stripes on his left arm represent his spiritual seeking. Eastern philosophy and meditation “helped me awaken from my own materialistic funk,” he says. Beyond his personal experience, the symbols reflect the extinction of religions, languages and cultures around the world. Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion and philosophy that influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “was once the world’s biggest religion, and now it’s nothing,” he says.
- The Louie Vuitton symbols at the bottom of his right arm are a reminder of the time in his life when he was striving for material gain and also represent the brand that’s a status symbol for some in the black community, Weber says. As a basketball player at Hoover High School, Kirkwood Community College and Simpson College, he once believed that sports would provide his own path to riches (which he represents with the Chicago Bulls logo on the left rib cage). “My idea was to be a superstar and then do good with the money,” he says. But a knee injury forced him to quit basketball and ponder other options, eventually leading him to pursue art.
- The “T. Americana” on the left side of his chest and milkweed on his right forearm depict Weber’s concern for the “genocide of biodiversity” and sprawling urbanization. Thismia americana was a flowering plant that was discovered in the early 1900s in the wetlands surrounding Chicago’s Lake Calumet. As the land was industrialized, the plant went extinct. Several species of milkweed, which provide food for monarch butterflies, are on the federal government’s threatened list.
- The mud splattered on the left side of Weber’s body and his arm is from 10th Street and University Avenue, a former site of the headquarters of the Black Panthers in Des Moines. “It’s one of the most important parts of the piece,” Weber says. In addition to the historical aspect, the mud is “symbolic of the inner city’s disconnect with nature and the environment in general,” he says, adding it also represents a spiritual connection to the earth.
Although the work reflects Weber’s intellectual curiosity and spiritual contemplation, it also reveals his sense of humor. The dog that looks like Goofy in the center of his body? That is in fact … Goofy. “I wanted to incorporate pop iconography,” he says. “Goofy makes the piece approachable and brings (the viewer) into it. Then they can start looking more closely and thinking about it more deeply.”