New York

Luther Price

Thread Waxing Space

In 1989, over two decades after Kenneth Anger published his own death notice in The Village Voice, Boston sculptor and filmmaker Luther Price staged the suicide-by-candy-overdose of his artistic persona Tom Rhoads, paving the way for a similar creative rebirth. Reflecting many such shifts in a multifaceted career (whose resemblance to Anger’s extends beyond a tendency toward extravagant gestures to an inspired use of mass culture references), Price’s recent show, “Imitation of Life,” contained photographs, objects, videos, and a number of the Super-8 films he began crafting in the mid-’80s after recovering from a gunshot wound. (Four of his films were concurrently screened in a one-night presentation at MoMA, as part of a two-year survey of American 8-mm film.) Whether his work is formally ravishing, like the slides made of scraps of film and crushed flies enlarged into lush, grainy photographs, or deadpan, as in a videotape alternating stills of flowers and a saltbox-style house, what remains constant is an aggressive interrogation of the relationship between life and art.

Price’s early films comprise static vignettes reflecting both horror and unlikely beauty—indelible images in Green, 1988, for example, include a dead starling, the artist’s face decorated with fake acne, and his mother wearing an emerald satin gown. Sodom, 1988-94, however, marked a departure: Whereas previously Price “would spend a whole roll of film on one stuffed animal,” he began to “dig into” the material, making more rapid cuts and obsessively layering images, often by excising circles from the film strip with a hole punch and gluing them onto other frames to create an effect of whirling panes of stained glass. A tour de force of hypnotic, brutal poetry, Sodom melds a violent gay porn flick salvaged from Boston’s Combat Zone (the city’s no-longer-extant sex district) with an unidentified biblical epic, interspersing additional footage of wounds and dripping blood. Flames, flesh, and fur become a painterly blur as Gregorian chants play both forward and in reverse on the sound track. Sodom has been criticized for its “negative” content, but even a depicted rape, while difficult to watch, seems transfigured, suggesting a Bataillean articulation of the nexus between sensuality and death.

Sodom exists in four versions—one an impressive double projection—recalling Anger’s reedits of films like Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, 1954, and Jack Smith’s various incarnations of Normal Love, 1963. “Film is flexible,” Price notes, adding that if one of his fragile original prints is destroyed during projection, it will have fulfilled its fated life span. Burned frames are “good-luck signs.” A dadalike embrace of chance pervades Price’s project—the sound for Ritual 629, 1990-99, for example, consists of a botched recording by his band Your Fabulous Ass. In the jittery, densely layered, and strikingly framed Run, 1994, scratches, explosions of colored dye, and visible splice marks render the medium a palpable presence, while staccato shots of pigeons assembled on power lines superimposed over swirling images of houses and trees are accompanied by the chugging sounds of an editing machine on the brink of demise.

Deploying rhythmic loops, Jelly Fish Sandwich, 1994, splinters and reanimates found material including World War II bombing footage, upside-down NFL sequences, and idyllic Polynesian scenes. To a speeded-up Carpenters medley, a football player flies backward, a woman steps forward, and a warplane dives endlessly into the sea. Just as Jelly Fish Sandwich hints at a political subtext by interweaving allusions to imperialism and mass entertainment, many of the ghostly images and sounds Price summons suggest an underlying motif: that of his hometown’s conflicted desires—from the luridly named Combat Zone to rose-covered saltbox houses, a local easy-listening station, and children in Communion regalia. Another kind of poignance is evoked by the hypnotized astronaut and iris petal floating through distant galaxies in Bottle Can, 1993—a yearning for escape that Price, in his efforts to “sing and touch and taste his life right,” is too clear-eyed to embrace or ignore.

Kristin M. Jones