Pearl Lines by Walter Price – dancing with whiteness

Walter Price is unconventional. Nowadays, Instagram is more and more a place to glimpse artists and their work, but this American artist’s page does not exist. Speaking to Price by Zoom in his New York studio, I found out that he quit social media in 2017. “Too much research and not enough thinking,” he says. And one thing Price wants viewers of his work to do is sit down and reflect on his paintings and drawings.

With his first major solo exhibition in the UK, Pearl lines, about to open at the Camden Art Center in London, Price talks about the juxtaposition of styles and ideas in his work. He chose the title of his show because of its ambiguity of meaning but also to refer to the value he places on drawing. It’s the same title as the previous shows he had, because, according to him: “There is an effective magic in repetition. Like with a favorite song. I would like to exhaust this title like a radio DJ does with a summer hit.

Price naturally tends to go against the grain in his work. “I’m always thinking about how to make people more comfortable being uncomfortable. I use visual contradictions to symbolize ideas for myself but also [to allow] viewers have their own story with these objects. Blending elements of abstraction and figuration, he paints familiar motifs like sofas, trees, fire, water, cars and bathtubs in unfamiliar contexts. Often reflecting on black identity in his own experience and in the broader cultural imagination, he struggles in his work with traditional conventions of the “right” way to make art.

“ To accelerate the chaos ” (2020)

'Learn to Love' (2020)

‘Learn to Love’ (2020)

For Price, “abstraction is king” because it allows him to rely heavily on color, line and form to communicate ideas open to individual interpretations by viewers. “When you see an abstract painting, it can be your own. You can watch it and frame it in your mind, and right now it’s yours because of what the colors can say [and the effect they have on you] based on your own experiences and even your childhood.

Born in 1989 in Macon, Georgia, Price recounts how his late mother always called him a dreamer. He knew from the second year of elementary school that he wanted to be an artist.

“I grew up mostly with working class people who didn’t really understand what it meant to be an artist, and I was trying to figure out what it meant on my own. But luckily no one at that time ever discouraged me. They just let me be me and find out.

Jacob Lawrence was the first artist whose work was truly drawn. “With the blacks [in Lawrence’s work] it wasn’t so much about their faces in particular. It was more a question of form, color and the formal qualities of the art. So even if you see figures, you can move around and focus only on the shape and composition of the work. I fell in love with it.

`` So many answers, but I'd rather stir '' (2020)
“ So many answers, but I’d rather stir ” (2020)

His new exhibition, born out of his studio residency in 2020 at the Camden Art Center, includes 17 paintings and 50 drawings. The paintings, which Price has housed in the smaller of the two exhibition halls to emphasize his view that the practice of drawing is primary and fundamental, are both fluid and dreamlike, angular and crisp. All reflect on his experiences as a black man in predominantly white spaces, in an exhibition he describes as “political, but not overtly”.

“During the London residency I was thinking about how growing up in Macon, it’s over 50 percent black, I didn’t really think about my blackness – until I started traveling. In London, I was so aware of it. Besides being very cold, it is also very white. So when it came to doing my job, I thought about what I bring to the table as an artist, which is color, life and these coded images of darkness. I decided, why not dance with the whiteness?

It was an intentional conceptual challenge for much of his earlier work. Several of Price’s new paintings, although started in London, have been completed on lockdown in New York. In response to this London experience, several present a prominent white square, like a blank canvas.

'Cold summer' (2020)

‘Cold summer’ (2020)

`` Hold the umbrella tight while watching my rain '' (2020)

“ Hold the umbrella tight while watching my rain ” (2020)

“I thought, why not use different temperatures and textures to make those white squares move to the rhythm of this very white space? I kind of see this job like me in a ballroom trying to dance all that white.

He also thought about his exhaustion from everything that was going on in the world. Thus, the use of white represented how he himself was strapped for color and energy both physically and metaphorically.

“I’ve been in a white box for a while. I walked straight into the Navy from high school, and went from knowing I’m black to knowing I’m black every day. It’s just my reality.

During our conversation, I cannot ignore the number of times he brings up the military. His four years of service in the United States Navy was clearly an experience that left an indelible mark on his life and artistic practice. When I point this out to him, Price laughs softly. He tells me a bit about that time for him, joining the Navy at 18, suddenly thrown into what looked like a prison sentence. He enlisted because it would give him access to the Montgomery GI Bill, which pays for the education of enlisted men after their tenure. It was the only way Price could imagine affording art school. It’s a decision that got him to study at Middle Georgia College – but he lowers his head slightly and slowly shakes it as he talks about all the aggression he remembers from the Navy years. But, he says, being forced to learn to deal with all types of people and situations, as well as discipline, has trained him well in life skills.

`` Don't Let The Clouds Steal Your Color '' (2020)
“ Don’t Let The Clouds Steal Your Color ” (2020)

“I only went to the army initially to be able to do art. It was a way to get from point A to point B. The reason I talk about it a lot is because I learned a lot about myself through it, and I can only be grateful because which I think it helped me a lot to dodge. bad decisions. It taught me to be prepared and to value practice and repetition, until it was ingrained and second nature. This . . . really helped me in my artistic practice.

Price is excited about his new exhibit every time it opens, but he remains busy working in his New York studio. “I still produce a lot. . . the themes of my overall work are contradiction, play, dark humor, poetry, joy and “what do you know about darkness? I want my job to work in a way where all of these colors give you so much happiness and life, but still some of the same things you can’t decipher in the job. [are] very dark. It’s like playing. The game welcomes you in the painting, and then the reality kind of places you in the painting.

May 21-August 29

Enuma Okoro is a writer and lecturer

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