Decoding the mysterious art of Luther Price, experimental cinema's gay shaman

After more than three decades of making art out of derelict film spools, the acclaimed underground filmmaker Luther Price passed away recently on June 13, 2020.

by Jones John Published on : Jun 25, 2020

Incandescence is always subject to a certain amount of entropy, but even beyond the void those seeking its warmth might still feel it in the residual traces of the source’s once frenzied luminosity. On June 13, 2020, Luther Price, the American artist whom the writer Ed Halter famously described in 2012 as being “Brakhage after Punk”, passed from this world at the age of 58, leaving behind a legacy in the form of repurposed celluloid. Though his works might be obscure to most and even jarring to some, a careful look at any artefact from his diverse and strikingly haunting oeuvre reveals the hands of one of the medium’s most sensitive aesthetes.

Luther Price | STIRworld
Luther Price Image Credit: Gene Pittman, Courtesy of the Walker Art Center Calicoon Fine Arts

Price had trained as a sculptor and it was physical incapacity, caused by a gunshot wound during his semester abroad, that found him turning his sight towards experimental film under the pseudonym Tom Rhoads. Beginning his practice under the tutelage of Saul Levine in the decades following the establishment of the cinematic avant-garde across the stretch of United States, from Los Angeles to New York, by stalwarts such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and the Mekas brothers (and incidentally being born in 1962, which was the year the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, an organisation that would one day be responsible for the distribution of his films, was founded by some of these pioneers with a vision of keeping “underground” film culture accessible and alive), Price was perfectly poised to revitalise the expressionistic possibilities of film and this he did with a prodigious vigor.

A still from Sodom (1989) by Luther Price | Tom Rhoads | STIRworld
A still from Sodom (1989) by Luther Price Image Credit: Courtesy of Calicoon Fine Arts

Amidst the granular flicker of his embodied engagement with the medium, one can sense an economy that is not mitigated by the visceral effects of his montages. Despite this he is known mostly for his unrestrained renditions of excess as typified by Sodom (1989), during whose production he became Luther Price, in which the artist dives into the materiality of homoerotic abjection with the deviant devotion of a forlorn medieval librettist. The film, which has come to be treated as Price’s magnum opus, manifests the torpid resonances between secretion and decay, communal self-gratification and debauched horrors, ecstasy and death, in a presentation through which the medium of film and the flesh projected on screen dissolve into a terrible unity. Its attention, however blinding, is deserved as through its subversion it becomes a deranged beatitude for corporeal caution, amongst other descriptions which is epistemologically self-antagonising. This curious characteristic is even seen reflected in the range of its detractors; while conservative critics denounced it for being too vulgar, members of the queer community found its spirit of excess inherently homophobic.

Yet, his films are not all sexual phantasmagoria as most descriptions might suggest. There is something surgical about his treatment of found footage, which results in compositions with a musical quality. In Run (1994), for example, the recurring motifs, from landscapes to the fauna, seem arranged in a notational manner to indicate a language which is implicitly referencing its own psychological states so that its somber drone becomes almost self-analytical. Others tend to feel less abstract, like Jelly Fish Sandwich (1994), which seems to engage with the politics of shifting perceptions and the processes of othering, and Kittens Grow Up (2007), which actively engages with the gendered aggressions within domesticity and disassociated childhoods.

A still from Jelly Fish Sandwich (1994) by Luther Price | Tom Rhoads | STIRworld
A still from Jelly Fish Sandwich (1994) by Luther Price Image Credit: Courtesy of Calicoon Fine Arts

There is an irreconcilable mystery to Price. What does one make of a gay artist whose most acclaimed artwork has alienated him from the queer community? Of a filmmaker who uses an empirical medium with little consideration for sequential narrativity? Of a person who has hidden his birthname throughout his life with an almost mystical determination?

Maybe each of these questions are insignificant, but there is an undeniable sense of destined obsolescence in the practice of an artist working with found film in the digital era, however the poignance of his psychoanalytic vitality, enmeshed within his films’ materiality, is unignorably compelling. Though Price’s artistic vision might not be immediately comprehensible, his aesthetic sensibilities are magnetic and beyond their visual and material properties, it is his films’ cerebral ferocity that makes them irresistible. It was through simple acts of manipulation and repetition that he built forms in which his viewers can come to recognise disturbing facets of their own psyche and as his films turn their gaze towards us, they tenaciously question our ability to honestly look at ourselves in the mirror.

A still from Warm Broth (1987-88) by Luther Price, as Tom Rhoads | Tom Rhoads | STIRworld
A still from Warm Broth (1987-88) by Luther Price, as Tom Rhoads Image Credit: Courtesy of Calicoon Fine Arts

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