BY BRUCE ADAMS
Ken Price, “Liquid Rock” (2004)
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALBRIGHT KNOX ART GALLERY
West Coast sculptor Ken Price once said, “Drawing is a way of seeing what you’re thinking about.” Of course, he was talking about the act of putting something down on paper to visualize and flesh out those creative ideas always clogging up artists’ heads.
There’s another meaning though. Drawing can be the key to granting others entry into your mind, a way ofm letting them see “what you’re thinking about.” Drawings can be the record of a creative process or a form of doodling—direct expression from brain to hand with minimal editing. Yet drawings are frequently overlooked, overshadowed by an artist’s more significant work, or never intended for public display.
Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper, 1962–2010 is the first comprehensive survey of drawings by the artist, who died in 2012. On view at the Albright-Knox until January 19, the exhibition was organized by chief curator Douglas Dreishpoon in conjunction with the Drawing Center in New York, where it was first on display.
The sixty-five works on paper—most of which have never previously been seen—span almost fifty years. They are by turns quirky, unsettling, and transcendent. One reason they are largely unknown is because Price’s drawing has been eclipsed by his reputation as an influential ceramic sculptor. But they often act as roadmaps marking the twisted avenues the artist took on the way to his sculptural forms. (One of his late-career biomorphic sculptures is on display as you enter the museum.) These are not all great works of art; he made them for his own amusement—and as a way of working out ideas—with no particular audience in mind. But they do offer a glimpse into the artist’s mind, a sometimes weird, but often wonderful place.
Price was born in Los Angeles and grew up living a Southern California lifestyle dominated by surfing and jazz. From early on, he self-identified as an artist. Looking at his art, one imagines that he was also a devoted student of underground comics, horror films, and the West Coast cultural landscape. There was little in the line of contemporary art happening in L.A. in the 1950s, and Price’s initial training was in illustration and cartooning, both of which influence his drawing. Later he studied sculpture with Peter Voulkos, who is often credited, along with Price, with changing perceptions of ceramics as being inextricably linked to craft. Price’s sculptural work is largely abstract, but his drawings are not only representational, they’re often illustrative, with implied narratives. Nowhere is this more true than in K. P.’s Journey to the East, a ten-foot-by-nine-inch inkon-paper scroll and accompanying text that humorously chronicles the artist’s 1962 travels in Japan. It’s hard to say exactly where truth ends and whimsy begins in these crudely drawn but elegantly composed depictions, though it’s safe to assume such things as the depiction of a deadly samurai duel fall into the latter category.
Some of Price’s earliest drawings from the late sixties and early seventies reveal an artist trying out ideas for his sculptural work. This is the period when Price was fixated on the cup as a fundamental sculptural form, and there are several fanciful cup variations ornamented, integrated, or otherwise associated with frogs, lizards, nude women, and—especially—turtles. One or two are only discernable as drinking utensils from the information on their labels. These are not rough sketches; they’re fully realized works of graphic art that feel intimate despite their pop aesthetics.
As with the brightly hued, mottled surfaces of his sculpture, Price employs amped-up color and texture in his drawings. After a couple early black and white academic renderings, the artist quickly turns to the flat saturated colors typical of 1960s art, employing various combinations of gouache, ink, colored pencil, and acrylic paint. By the end of his career, he achieves eye-searing comic book saturation, with sharply delineated areas of black bringing to mind Japanese woodcuts.
According to Dreishpoon’s catalog essay, there is a treasure trove of Price’s overtly erotic art that has never seen the light of day; the artist held it back for a future exhibition. But eroticism is already implicit, if not overt, in much of Price’s work. Object on Base, for example, depicts a black egg-shaped form crowned with red labia, playing with an unmistakably sexual double meaning. There’s more sexual punning in the cartoonyNarrow Passage, in which a fleshy nude woman in red pumps crawls on hands and knees along the jagged trail between two perilous chasms in the earth. The woman looks over her shoulder at us, her ample buttocks drawing our attention. Between this, the gaping voids, and the title, Price pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously being satiric and satyric.
In 1971, Price and wife Happy left the smog-laden din of Los Angeles for the sweeping terrain and peace of Taos, New Mexico. Here he embarked on one of the stranger odysseys in contemporary art: Happy’s Curios. Intended as a cacophonous tribute to the curio stores and Mexican folk pottery he had seen in Tijuana years earlier, the endeavor incorporates shrines, custom cabinets, wall coverings, ceramics, weavings, prints, drawings, and signs. Though the project became an obsession that lasted six years and was never fully realized, it was eventually exhibited in a somewhat more traditional form at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Happy’s Curios seems to be Price’s attempt to challenge the impermeable divisions between craft, folk art, and fine art. Given the artist’s commitment to ceramics, such classificatory disputes must have been an ongoing concern. A number of preparatory drawings for Happy’s Curios are included in the exhibition.
In the 1990s, Price’s drawings consisted largely of illustrated urban interiors and exteriors, which—as others have pointed out—echo a similar theme in his sculpture. His work from this period looks something like Adrian Tomine’s New Yorker illustrations, and could have been influenced by the silkscreen prints of fellow Angeleno Ed Ruscha. Heat Wave is a portfolio of fifteen screen prints depicting Los Angeles traffic jams, beds, chairs, suburban homes, and sexy billboards, most shrouded to some extent in smog. Their deadpan ambiguity comes off like a wry celebration of urban banality.
From the turn of the century through the end of his life, Price made some of his most darkly weird and wonderful drawings. Influenced by the Taos landscape infused with surrealistic flights of fancy and apocalyptic undertones, these works shine. He begins most by using vivid acrylic washes that bleed into one another to create ominously seething skies, that represent everything from sinister sunsets to gathering storms. Over this he lays hard-edge land and sea depictions in opaque acrylic and ink.
In Cabin of Dreams, two menacingly enormous dead trees with tentacle-like roots dwarf a cartoon house perched on a round hill. It’s a comic-horror variant on a theme pervading much of this late-period work—the ominous threat of nature. Storm Light and The Pacific Ocean are portentous counterpoints to the block print seascapes of Katsushika Hokusai. In The Bottomless Pit the land itself becomes an earthen predator. In several works, volcanoes spout plumes of red hot lava in dazzling amped-up colors. Recurrent mobile homes do not so much exist amidst trees, mountains, and foliage, as they are engulfed by them.
Some of this work may seem cheerfully goofy, but in almost all of it, there is a lurking dark vision.