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Paula Jean Rice, “Transformation & Transcendence”
Review by Lynn Trimble
Coconino Center for the Arts, Flagstaff, Arizona

Paula Jean Rice, “The Big Bang” (right foreground, detail)


Continuing through June 17, 2023


Yellow flames appear to engulf a human torso in “Tribute/911” (2002) at the entry to this retrospective exhibition spanning four decades of work by Flagstaff-based Paula Jean Rice. Her three-dimensional and wall-mounted relief sculptures blend autobiography with cosmic, geographic, and historical references. Here, rising flames reflect not only a specific now historical tragedy, but also the wildfires that play a significant role in shaping this region’s forest ecosystem. The elemental nature of fire combines with Rice’s topical references, hinting at the ways this artist moves between the mysteries of the human body, consciousness, and the cosmos.


The exhibition includes over two dozen works, most created using oxidation-firing or raku techniques, but also including a small selection of porcelain pieces. Rice’s torsos are particularly impactful, in part because they convey the complexities of the human condition through myriad marks such as gashes that seem to carry both personal and others’ pain, as well as openings that signal the presence of a metaphysical world within and beyond the physical form. Some figures have open skulls, suggesting a direct connection between the human body and the sky. Others feature small bits of negative space that allude to the intimacies of interior life, or the things that go unnoticed in the absence of thoughtful attention.  


Two installations titled “Lazarus,” one a single figure (2001) and another comprising two figures (2006), hold space on opposite sides of the center of the gallery, where they poignantly point to the experiences of feeling broken and feeling healed. Here, the artist calls to both a biblical account of resurrection and her own encounters with loss. Elsewhere, a trio of raku reliefs titled “Sky Child with Skull Man” (1990) suggests a terrifying battle between a child and death. Rooted in the experiences of a childhood cancer survivor, the piece is animated by forms protruding from the surface as if propelled by powerful emotion.


Produced by the Center, the show displays Rice’s fascination with spirituality and science, amplifying her belief in the infinite connections between these two means of storytelling and interpreting the world. The strongest such statement is “The Big Bang” (2016), a seated being peering with intense curiosity at a round form with protrusions that calls to mind desert botanical and other biological forms. One imagines the artist herself as that being, channeling both interior and exterior forces in her quest for greater understanding of the nature and meaning of life.


The body as landscape or planet serves as a conceptual foundation for much of Rice’s work. It’s expressed most effectively in “Figure as Planet” (2004) and “Impact” (2006), two sculptures placed side by side, each with a surface that suggests planetary craters or other geological formations. Across the gallery, a trio of three raku sculptures grouped together on the gallery floor (“Canyon People,” 1995) hybridizes human forms with geological forms suggesting rock, tree roots, and natural objects that carpet the forest floor. Throughout the exhibition intriguing details are imbued in imagery and symbols. 


At times, the exhibition takes a more playful turn. With the “Planet Series” (2012), the artist appears to ascribe different personality traits to each of the planets. For a series of raku relief sculptures titled “Council of the Critters” (2020), she imagines the advice backyard fauna might lend in the face of her concerns for humanity. Rice’s work becomes more delicate in a porcelain series titled “Things Above” (2010) and her ceramic oxidation-fired “Night Music” (2015), both of which possess ethereal qualities. Although these works lend insight into Rice’s shifting use of materials and ideas over time, it’s Rice’s sculptures reflecting the darker corners of interior and exterior worlds that ultimately prove the most illuminating.

Coconino Center for the Arts

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