Leland Rice exhibition surveys canvas that was the Berlin Wall

December 19, 1991|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

When the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, this concrete barrier quickly became the source of souvenir chunks of Cold War history. As East German hands chipped at one side of the Berlin Wall and West German hands hacked away at the other, its joyous destruction erased it from all but our collective memory.

For American photographer Leland Rice, who began an extensive series of pictures of the West German side of the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall in 1983, this sudden rewriting of history affects how we now look at his photographic series from the '80s.

During Rice's previous exhibits at the C. Grimaldis Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Art, our attention was drawn to the topical commentary offered by many of the scrawls painted on the wall dividing Berlin. Seeing some of these same photographs in Rice's current exhibit at Grimaldis, we think of them as having "dated" in the sense that they are now a visual record of something that no longer exists.

But if the fresh headlines of contemporary events had been Rice's main concern, the resulting series would function only as straightforward photojournalism. Instead, he was after something more in this series. Having previously worked on a series in which he photographed the walls of painters' studios, showing the splatters left behind after the completed paintings were carried away, he looked on the Berlin Wall as a

far larger wall to consider.

Rice now had a huge outdoor wall on which generations of protesters and graffiti artists had left their mark. Professional artists like the graffiti-influenced Keith Haring, who knew a public canvas when they saw one, also painted directly onto the wall. And so the Berlin Wall was literally covered with layers of images that ranged from a pictographic rendering of Charlie Chaplin to "Yanks Go Home" type slogans.

Confronted with all this explosively colorful imagery, Rice sometimes zeroed in on such politically loaded graffiti as the Orwellian slogan "Big Brother Is Watching You." Most often, though, he opted for a more abstract approach. He achieved this in two ways: by shooting up close he was able to crop words and images, turning these isolated parts into near-abstractions; and by shooting with densely saturated Cibachrome he was able to make the resulting photographs resemble abstract paintings.

The tight cropping in "Untitled (Face on the Wall)," for instance, draws our attention to the outlined face done in pictograph fashion by an anonymous graffiti artist. This schematic rendering of a face is totemic in a manner akin to so much figurative painting of the '80s, while the drips of paint coming down from that face are evocative of how these artists wanted to leave their own gestural mark on the generic image.

Likewise, Rice surely had contemporary abstract painters in mind as he shot other photos in which the layers of writing and imagery are so dense that we look on the "finished" image in terms of color more than content. "Berlin Tex" is really about the black, red and blue overlays of graffiti, isn't it? And isn't "Untitled (White Figure)" a deliberate reminder that the pitted surface of the Berlin Wall was itself like a canvas against which everybody could freely lift a brush?

"Leland Rice: A Photographic Memory of the Berlin Wall" remains C at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, 1006 Morton St., through Dec. 28. ? (410) 539-1080.

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