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Tracey Harnish Headshot

LACMA's Ken Price Retrospective: Fecundity of Mounds and Eggs

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At the end of last year, for a brief time I worked for William Close, who recently was a finalist on America's Got Talent. Close, the inventor of the earth harp, the instrument he would play all the way to the finals of the competition, had wanted to create a small museum based on unique musical instruments, had hired me to help. Due to funding issues my time with Close was short but I can tell you this: he is a great guy and a mad genius.

Last Thursday, the day after I saw the Ken Price retrospective at LACMA, I was looking over the exhibition catalog when I started to wonder about the America's Got Talent results. While I cannot bear watching the show itself, I fervently hoped Close would win. Around the time I knew the show would end, I googled the appropriate words to find the results. To my surprise and frustration, there was not yet any breaking news on the intertubes. Next stop, twitter. Naturally an endless number of people were live tweeting and it was a matter of seconds before I learned the disappointing news that the trained dancing dogs beat out Close.

We've been watching trained dancing dogs on TV since the days of Ed Sullivan. What is new is the opportunity to see a musician who strung his first harp installation on one side of a valley so that it literally stretched out nearly 1,000 feet to the other side. While the dogs may have won, what is startling is how often the unique and original creativity of an individual can now reach the general public.

It's no coincidence that I thought of William Close while I looked at images of Ken Price sculpture. Mad genius musician meet mad genius sculptor. Both artists use the architecture of the earth to inspire and fuel their creations while at the same time refashioning their medium of choice. It's a vibrational wonder to sit under the strings of an earth harp that has been strung across an auditorium; it's a mind boggling conundrum to understand that Price transformed the craft of clay into a material that appears to consist solely of color.

The Ken Price sculpture retrospective that recently opened at LACMA is one of those moments where the sheer originality of creativity is obvious and working on us. We get to see Price's evolution from his early unique take on Joseph Cornell type cup installations to what he called his "golden period" in the larger work of his final years.

Price, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the Pacific Palisades when LA still felt like a small town, surfed and learned how to play the trumpet with Chet Baker. While it has become almost stereotypical to talk about early LA artists in terms of the sun, sea and laid back culture, one can't help but see the influence of the young city's personna in Prince's work. It is almost impossible to picture an artist growing up in New York and having the same sensibility as Price. Besides the fact that he hung out with the artists best known in the Light and Space movement, lived in Venice and at times used auto paint in his work (a typical LA artist invention) his fascination with merging color and form to the point where they are indistinguishable could easily have come from the influence of his surroundings, where sky and sea met endlessly at the horizon. Later he would live in Taos, New Mexico where the influences of his environment would continue to influence his work leading him to say, "For whatever reason the sky here is connected to the land; it's not like anything I've seen anywhere else."

What I am most struck by in viewing Price's work is his personal vision, the vision he stay true to throughout most of his career and the very personal spell his work embodies in it's final stages. When artists that would be considered his contemporaries in New York were having fabricators construct large geometrically inspired minimalist sculptures, Price handcrafted pieces that were small and organically derived. When Price's blocky geometric works were in demand, he turned to the new work he was driven to make ignoring the commerce. During a time when Peter Voulkos, Price's one time teacher and mentor along with John Mason, his fellow student, made large, rough and masculine infused pieces, Price chose to make refined, pristine works.

The retrospective includes work from the 1960s through 2011 and seeing work that spans almost 60 years is akin to flipping through a personal photo album that tells the story of the essence of a life lived. For each person viewing the exhibition, certain phases of this life, will protrude. The egg pieces, with their slits and holes and unearthly larvae like extensions are a cross of alien sensuality and gestalt reconnaissance. The egg shape suggests fertility and creation while the worm like projection erupting from a small orifice refers to forbidden sensual suggestions. Brilliantly painted, these pieces confuse and repulse, while drawing the viewer in for more. Price seems to be fascinated by contradiction, ying and yang, and the push and pull of aversion and attraction.

In Price's last series of work, the pieces are biomorphic in nature. The shapes are so sensual and ambiguous that they read androgynous while also suggesting the coiled snake of sexuality. These pieces refer to so much transcendent imagery that it is mind-boggling. Fortunately most of these symbols are subtle and do not overwhelm overtly. Instead the viewer sees organic forms that are Keith Haring cartoonish, yet resonate as moving energy that has been petrified and then made dimensional. Very often these sculptures are fecund to the point of inspiring thoughts about infinity and death as tubular limbs embrace, curve and surround their own forms. Micro biotic cells seem to be dividing and reproducing while in an endless pranam to the primordial mountains of the soul. There is a constant reverb of energy to the shapes that are part fleshy organism and part pagan god.

While viewing the pieces at the museum, I felt a persistent unnamable familiarity of imagery that constantly gnawed at the edge of my mind. When I got home I image googled a couple of the most recent sculptures, all the while expecting to see mountain views or cartoons come up in the results. Instead I was surprised to see a massive display of people of all colors, shapes, ethic backgrounds and age. Price's androgynous shapes and gleaming colors are actually a very subtle and rather thrilling symbol of the fabric of our society. Price was influenced by the nature surrounding him throughout his life and by abstracting and mutating shape, pattern, and structure; he produced luminescent sculptures that enlighten the mortal plane, like any mad genius would.

The show runs through January 6, 2013 at LACMA.

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