Luther Price, experimental artist and filmmaker, dies at 58

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Luther Price, experimental artist and filmmaker, dies at 58
Luther Price: Light Windows, Jan 26–Feb 1, 2015. Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Luther Price, a multimedia artist and prolific experimental filmmaker known for his haunting, often transgressive work — as well as for never revealing his real name — died June 13 at his home in Revere, Massachusetts. He was 58.

His death was announced by Callicoon Fine Arts, his New York representative, which did not give the cause.

Price’s films were distinguished by his use of found footage and his unusually hands-on approach. His themes were variously domestic, sexual, autobiographical and always visceral, even when his work was abstract. His styles ranged from expressionistic to quasi-documentary. Some of his films explored his childhood and featured members of his family, especially his mother (or, sometimes, the artist himself dressed to resemble her).

The throughlines were fragmented narratives, startling juxtapositions and suggestions of physical decay, often combined to nightmarish effect. Price’s best films were never less than gripping.

Lia Gangitano, the independent curator who gave Price his first solo exhibition in 1999 at Thread Waxing Space in SoHo and another in 2014 at Participant, a nonprofit space she founded on the Lower East Side, wrote in an email, “Luther Price made films that aren’t like anyone else’s. They inspire devotion. He embraced a particularly unapologetic set of working-class values and pushed his chosen medium to its limits to produce an uncompromising and cyclical view of bodily, familial and societal damage.”

Price was probably best known for “Sodom” (1988-89), a Super 8 film that combined excerpts from gay pornographic films (discarded by X-rated bookstores in Boston) with footage from biblical epics, set to the intonations of a Gregorian chant played backward.

He created the illusion of intersecting films — and bodies — by using hole punches to excise tiny circles of celluloid from individual frames and replacing them with other images. It was a painstaking technique even for an artist who had studied jewelry-making in art school. Multiple images jumped feverishly back and forth, almost as if the film were trying to escape the projector.

“Sodom” was criticized alternately for being immoral and for denigrating gay people. But it made Price’s reputation, heralded the rising attention to queer cinema and has come to be seen as a gay classic, even though it was initially rejected by some gay film festivals.

Over the past three decades, Price’s films appeared regularly at festivals in cities across the country and abroad, including in San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. There were screenings devoted to his work at the Museum of Modern Art and the Kitchen in New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Price was not the first filmmaker to manipulate celluloid, but he did so with a heightened emphasis on the psychological darkness of both spectacle and everyday life. Ed Halter — co-founder of Light Industry, an alternative film center in Brooklyn, and an organizer of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, which included Price’s work and helped bring it to the art world’s attention — called him “Brakhage after punk,” referring to the influential experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) and his relatively formal alterations of film, while introducing his films at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 2012.

Presented without benefit of titles or credits, often with a soundtrack of clacking projectors or sprockets, Price’s films rarely let viewers forget the mechanical nature — the objectness — of film. Through trial and error, he learned to clean up his worked-over celluloid so it could be screened without ruining projectors or falling apart. Many of his films existed only as what he called “handmade originals.”

Despite the often gritty, disheveled look of his films, Price was extremely organized. The studio in his small Revere house was lined with files devoted to films that he had found and dissected. He also archived little bits of emulsion scraped off his films, and he collected dust bunnies for use in performances.

He was similarly fastidious in appearance, always appearing with carefully trimmed hair and beard and neatly dressed, although his style could change markedly. In one photograph he wears a high-collared black coat that, blending with his dark beard, gives him a priestly look. In a video of a lecture he gave at the California College of the Arts, he is professorial, in a well-fitted sports jacket and a turtleneck.

Studying sculpture and performance and installation art at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where he later taught, Price first took up the camera to record his performance work (he often adopted the persona of a malevolent clown, which figured in his later films). The camera became his primary tool after 1985, when, during a semester abroad in Nicaragua, he suffered an accidental gunshot wound that left him with a limp and in chronic pain.

He approached filmmaking sculpturally, altering his film not only with elaborate splicing but also by scratching and scraping the celluloid with pins and razors; subjecting it to bleach and other chemicals; and embellishing it with paint, glitter, ink and olive oil. He left it out in the sun and buried it underground to absorb the deteriorating effects of dirt, mold and moisture.

These tactics intensified and became more eccentric with the more abstract films he created in the last 15 years, including his extended “Inkblot” series, and the tiny collages that he pieced together in glass slides combining outtakes from his films with hair, dirt and insects. These images might be enlarged into digital C-prints or become part of works consisting of a carousel of carefully sequenced slides that, when projected, suggested both slowed-down films and sped-up paintings.

His earliest films were made with Super 8 equipment while he was still at MassArt, where he studied with Saul Levine and Ericka Beckman, and all but announced a mature sensibility. “Warm Broth” (1987-88) seemed cobbled together from home movies of different vintages, but it was shot almost entirely by Price using a dirty lens and other devices to create the illusion of distant childhood memories.

The artist known as Luther Price was born Jan. 26, 1962, in Marlborough, Massachusetts, the eldest of three siblings in a Roman Catholic family. His parents’ names are not known, nor is how they made their living. He grew up mostly in Revere, a working-class town on Boston’s North Shore, in a house whose backyard sloped up to a sea wall that served as a periodic backdrop in his films. He drew from an early age and was also interested in music, especially country music.

He began to use different aliases in art school, making his first films as “Tom Rhoads.” When he was making “Sodom,” he found the name too innocent-sounding, so he devised “Luther Price” as a kind of sacred-profane homage to Martin Luther King Jr. and actor Vincent Price, known for his performances in horror films.

After graduating from MassArt in 1987, Price began teaching there almost immediately. He lived for several years with a group of friends and other artists in a house in Cambridge, often collaborating on performances and pop-up exhibitions.

In the late 1990s, Price’s parents and sister all learned they had cancer. To be close to them, he moved back to Revere to a small beach bungalow that was once his grandmother’s home, where he would live for the rest of his life.

His survivors include a brother, John, whose last name was not provided.

Returning to his personal and artistic origins gave Price’s art new focus and urgency. Over the next several years he created his “Cancer Home Movie Films,” among them “Mother,” “Home,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “Ritual 629” and “Door #2-37.”

After his mother’s death in 2001, he found himself at a dead end with autobiographical films and uninterested in even picking up a camera. He immersed himself in found footage, which allowed him more distance while “still dealing with human suffering and content,” he said in a 2012 interview with the online magazine Idiom.

“Fancy” (2006), made with medical footage of minor surgeries seen up close, maintained the shock value of his earlier films. “Shelley Winters” (2010), 11 minutes of blank white accompanied by tape recordings of men and women discussing their different views on domestic violence, offered an abstract but wrenching view of marriage.

A gentler if still unsettling view of family life prevailed in Price’s Biscuit films (2005-8), which used 13 identical copies of a 1970s segment from “Say Brother,” WGBH’s long-running documentary series (now called “Basic Black”) about African Americans.

For “The Biscuit Day,” he excised three brief scenes that follow a faltering old woman in a red-checked housecoat: as she is helped onto a shuttle by a group of relatives; as she is driven through town; and as she arrives at a nursing home in Boston, welcomed by staff and spirited through the front door. Each scene repeats numerous times, elongating the event into a ritualized rite of passage, if not an agony. With each repetition, the transition gains in emotional weight and finality.

In the last decade, Price’s energies were absorbed primarily by his abstract work. “The things eating away at me were now resolved,” he said in the Idiom interview. “I felt I needed to move on. So I dove into a more abstract world of decomposing film by rotting it in my garden.” This brought him, he said, to a different kind of “visceral, beautiful, turbulent place.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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