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The Illustrated Man

Works on paper by Ken Price at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Far East meets Far West in the artwork of Ken Price on exhibit at the Albright-Knox. Far East as in Japan. Far West as in LA.

The primarily LA artist spent some time in Japan in the early 1960s, partly attracted there by the prevailing favorable exchange rate. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a scroll work documenting some of his adventures there in words and Japanese-style pen-and-ink drawings.

These include the chance witness of a duel between two Samurai swordsmen that ended fatally for one of them, a visit to a Zen stone garden but with real turtles, and a linguistic faux pas when intending to say, “good evening,” he says, “third-class mail.” The Japanese written characters (for “third class mail” presumably) are provided in the protagonist’s speech balloon.

The scroll ends with a depiction of a thickly vegetated mountainside with a rather oversize in the context figure half-concealed among the foliage. The associated text relates of the artist’s supposed 12-year hermit sojourn in the mountains of central Japan. “Leaving all worldly values behind,” it says, “he will now attempt to discover the secrets of great nature and personal emptiness. No one has seen him since, but now and then tales are heard of a mystical white man in the mountains.”

Many of Price’s other artworks display distinctly Japoniste qualities. Oblique-perspective landscapes and simple, uncomplicated architecture, in monotone colors or black and white, and small formats reminiscent of woodblock prints. Ocean waterscapes in a pictorial style reminiscent of the artist Hokusai. Active volcano scenes reminiscent (several steps removed) of the myriad Japanese art depictions of Mt. Fujiyama.

The LA aspect partakes generously of the Japoniste tradition, but adds its own special emphasis on spatial grandeur—apparent even in the small formats—at once broaching and mocking the category of the sublime, in combination with Hollywood references to film, media, mediation, art as artificiality, ultimately the cartoon industry and its often vapid product. (Not Bugs and Daffy but the cheap fare that besieges the airwaves Saturday mornings, substituting as entertainment and baby sitter for kids who haven’t yet learned to distinguish genuine from ersatz, and so may never. A form of child abuse.) Some of the work looks like it was produced in the manner of film cartoons, that is, on cel transparencies that are then layered to produce a final image—a process employing actual depth often to obviate emotional/intellectual/imaginative depth.

The LA character of the work is most evident in a series of 15 or so illustrations Price made for an expensive collector’s edition volume of low-life poems by Charles Bukowski, called Heat Wave. A copy of the volume is also on display, with an audio setup featuring Bukowski reading the poems.

One of the illustrations is of an empty sitting room, except for a couch and end table and television showing a plume of black smoke—some sort of social unrest riot fire, it seems—the actual version of which is simultaneously visible outside, through a window. Other subject matter in the sometimes in color, sometimes black and white, series includes freeway traffic, bland residential architecture, bland downtown high-rise office buildings, and smog.

Price, who died in 2012, was best known as a sculptor in ceramics. He received his MFA from the College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

One room of the current exhibit is devoted to an ill-starred venture in Taos, New Mexico, to manufacture and sell Mexican-style pottery to the tourist trade. He said if had known what he was getting into, he would never have done it. (We’ve all been there.)

An adjoining room is devoted to Albright-Knox holdings of artists associated with the Ferus Gallery, the hippest place to show art in LA in the late 1950s, early 1960s, where Price had his first show. The Ferus room includes works by Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, John Altoor, Craig Kaufmann.

The show also includes a video interview with the artist a few years ago by show curator Douglas Dreishpoon. The exhibit runs through January 19.

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