Luther Price: Cinema’s trick
Andy Warhol’s Rorschach paintings are ‘abstract’. Abstraction, though, was a notion Warhol used curiously. Yes, it meant what we understand as abstract: these are non-representative forms in space. But for Warhol, abstraction also meant an excess of representation. Think of Andreas Gursky, his images of overabundance can be seen as abstract from this point of view. I think of the underwear section of the department store where The Philosophy of Andy Warhol ends. Andy can’t choose what to buy. Here, again, is a kind of abstraction. There is beguiling variety; each product pertains to a fantastical extension of the self into the world. Each one is a world in itself, containing its subject, either tightly or loosely according to preference. For Warhol (although Warhol, of course, didn’t write his own philosophy), buying pants is as exciting as buying diamonds. If a diamond is forever, the consumer choices of late capitalism’s everyday speak, not of the axis of time and space, but of the axis of potentiality. For sociologist Richard Senate, mp3 players, with their vast empty libraries, represent a similar logic, a kind of potency that has is infinite and inconceivable in scope.
These are things to be filled, but they have inexhaustable capacities. This is most obviously true of Gursky’s spaces and the mp3 player; capitalism is a nest of Chinese boxes. The case is the same for Warhol’s Rorschach paintings, as well as his slips, boxers and briefs. The towering monolithic forms of the Rorschach paintings speak to an interpretative possibility that will never be filled, or, closer to the practice of psychoanalysis: ‘fulfilled’. Underwear is also intended to be filled, but Warhol’s purchases were mostly left in their ‘packaging’. He already had too much stuff.
The modernist grid has this same infinite quality, and we can think of the film frame as its relative. In this way, the recent work of Luther Price both sets itself in opposition to this model while also sitting within it. In his series of found and subsequently embellished 16mm films, Price works over the black lines of the film frame, across the celluloid strip. Though contained within the screen at the point of projection, his processes of intervention make us notice how empty the film image has been before. Sitting in for a test screening of Light Industry’s presentation of Price’s work, I saw After the Garden: Dusty Ricket (2007), The Mongrel Sister (2007) and Ink Blot #44: Aqua Woman (2009-11), one in a series of films applied with colour ink.
The works have an aesthetic continuity, despite the differing processes of their production. Both Ink Blot and After the Garden series’ obscure the original found film’s visibility under layers of abstract forms. In Aqua Woman there is resplendent colour, mostly pinks and aquamarines. We can see images of a clinic, doctors attend to a child. We hear a man’s voice, we see a woman’s naked torso. After the Garden: Dusty Ricket was made by burying film in the artist’s backyard. Price allowed the film to decompose and host life forms. Hyphae grow in linear and amorphous arrangements, sometimes like ice crystals, sometimes in expansive, textural territories. The visual quality of Dusty Ricket is reminiscent of photographs taken during bombing raids during the second world war: flak in dense, dark clouds, bombs exploding below among the criss-cross ruins of decimated cities.
The succession of images in both of these films is relentless. Price makes one aware of how fast 24 frames per second feels. Things are glimpsed but nothing can be looked at. Aqua Woman appears as a phantom submerged under rushing, multi-coloured water. Tied to the speed of projection, these films cannot help but violate the eye. The above and below is the order of relation of these films. Their layering effect is vertiginous, and replaces the traditional privileging of linear time and montage.
If we are to compare Price’s work to Warhol’s Rorschachs we must first acknowledge Price works in the microscopic. His canvas is consistently 16mm wide. Similarities can nonetheless be drawn in returning to a discussion on abstraction. Warhol worked in the medium of ‘seeing how things would turn out,’ handing over processes of production to machines, to chance, to chemical reactions and other agents. In the Rorschach works, this idea is reduced to the simplicity of the fold. The motif of the artist taking ‘a step back’ in order to assess a canvas is mediated. Price works from the other end of the telescope: he has a micro relationship to spectacle’s archetypal macro image. Retrieved film stock is worked on directly at a back-lit slide table. He addresses film in its least spectacular state, yet this produces spectacular effects, which threaten to exceed film’s capacity and put its materiality in jeopardy. In a continuation of Warhol’s abstraction, Price’s work speaks to an excess of representation – one that, in its abstraction, refigures the filmic experience. The eye cannot see the celluloid frames individually because of the speed of projection. This is the core of cinema’s ‘trick’: an invisibility that produces its visibility. Price reconfigures the filmic image according to this paradox, treading a line between a representation of the medium and an abstraction of its effect.
Nine Films by Luther Price, curated by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, 6pm Friday 25 May 2012, ICA Cinema 1 (followed by Q&A with the curators) and Saturday 8.30pm Saturday 26th May 2012, ICA Cinema 2.