The Material Worlds of Luther Price

Luther Price’s Number 9 – Green Oxidation and Rust (2012)

In a brief 1999 survey of the work of artist and filmmaker Luther Price, who passed away this week, J. Hoberman noted that as a “onetime student of Super-8 guru Saul Levine, Price creates films with a similarly heightened degree of materiality.” That assessment could only be read as an understatement a few years later, when Price began his series of Inkblot films, scraping and recoloring the emulsion of Super-8 and 16 mm footage and occasionally burying the reels in the backyard of his seaside home in Massachusetts and allowing them to rot. “Vividly painted, chemically altered, buried underground, and incredibly fucked with,” wrote Andrew Lampert for BOMB Magazine in 2012, “these filmstrips are pushed to their limits; the results thwart notions of what the medium can withstand. These fragile reels behave more like undisciplined sculptures than movies. Each film is a unique object; no other copy exists or can be reproduced through traditional processes. Therefore, every projection brings the potential for destruction, both of the reel and possibly the projector.”

In 2012, Light Industry cofounders Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, working with Elisabeth Sussman and Sondra Gilman, cocurated the Whitney Biennial film and video program, which included work by Price—who, by the way, always kept his real name and age to himself. In her overview of the event for the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote that Price had also contributed “some of the show’s best pictorial art: projections of his lavishly scarified slides, pieced together from found film, filigreed with mold, textured with dust. In these entrancingly delicate, implicitly violent works, life, chance, obsessive art making, and an intense artistic psyche descended from Pollock, Rauschenberg, and Jack Smith—if not Hercules Segers—flashes before your eyes.”

On Twitter yesterday, Beard recalled that the late artist Carolee Schneemann had once told him that watching Price’s Warm Broth (1988) was “an indelible experience. That really is the apposite word when describing Luther’s movies—indelible. They stay with you, like a childhood memory, or a scar.” Warm Broth, made when Price was going by the name Tom Rhoads, is directly informed by Price’s own childhood memories. He appears dressed as his mother as she goes shopping, hangs laundry, and so on. “There’s a moment in the film when sound and image sync exquisitely,” wrote Tanner Tafelski for Hyperallergic in 2015. “During a rigid and recurring shot of the mother from the chest down, we see her hands peeling potatoes (shades of Jeanne Dielman) at a counter.” At one point, “her hand swiftly goes to her wrist. It’s gasp-inducing, even though she doesn’t cut but merely scratches herself. In the next shot, a fudge bar melts, or associatively bleeds, and a pool of chocolate forms around a wooden stick. Through editing and montage, Rhoads reveals the violence inherent in such charged images.”

Tom Rhoads became Luther Price with Sodom (1989–1994), which in the program notes for a 2013 retrospective at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Halter called “a vision of hell crafted from old gay porn, cheap color films faded into a sickly shitlike yellow-green-brown, with faces of men jittering inside hole-punched haloes, evoking at once ecstasy and torment.” Halter adds that the late filmmaker Michael Wallin, writing in the San Francisco Cinematheque’s journal Cinematograph, “defended Sodom as a work of formidable emotion and deep ambiguity, comparable to Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks or Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’amour, an ‘exploration . . . of the complex, contradictory nature of sexuality itself. Power, control, brutality—all are there, companions to lust and pleasure.’”

Writing for the Dissolve in 2013, Michael Sicinski proposed that Price had “refined his method” in the series of films made after the turn of the millennium. “There’s more unapologetic beauty,” Sicinski found. “His delicate organization of repeated images within staggered frames recalls the stylized queer decadence of Gilbert & George, but without the crutch of graphic design and self-branding. The films, meanwhile, have attained a staccato musicality in their disruption and repetition.” Bright Lights Film Journal editor Gary Morris wrote in 2000 about admiring Price’s “refusal to let the work alone after it’s made,” adding that “his insistence on the ‘aliveness’ of the film-object” is “one of the most exhilarating aspects of his work.” And Tafelski noted that when Halter brought a program of these films to London in 2012, he declared: “Luther Price is Brakhage after Punk.”

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