Penetrating the Punctum: Decay and Deformity in Luther Price’s ‘The Dry Remains’

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains at Callicoon Fine Arts (all images courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts)

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains at Callicoon Fine Arts (all images courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts)

“The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.”
–Samuel Beckett, The End Game

Whether canvases covered in oozing fibroids and cancerous tumors, uncanny sculptures resembling the preserved citizens of Pompeii or his destroyed slides that only heighten the alarming nature of his unsettling imagery, Luther Price’s work takes abjection to its absolute limit, reflecting the entirety of Julia Kristeva’s extensive definition of the term. No matter the medium, Price’s creations disturb, disgust and destabilize viewers with their unwavering focus on bodies, filth, defilement, decay and death.

Beginning with his sculptural work from the mid-1980s including the sculpture Sitting Figure: Mother and Baby, sitting ominously a window display, Price’s current exhibition The Dry Remains at Callicoon Fine Arts presents three decades of Price’s work. The show ranges from slide projections to abstract slide-riddled canvases to possibly my favorite work, Objects from Luther’s Life 1962-2015, featuring a collection of objects as varied as baby shoes and a rotting melted heart-shaped box of chocolates. How cute!

Luther Price, Objects from Luther's Life 1962-2015, dimensions variable

Luther Price, Objects from Luther’s Life 1962-2015, dimensions variable

While Price’s visual art and slide projections have recently garnered more attention with his exhibition at Participant Inc. last year and his inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Price is still perhaps best known for his Super 8 films such as Sodom or Warm Broth, which were recently shown in a film series at Anthology Film Archives in conjunction with The Dry Remains. Even though they are certainly in conversation with Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Tommy Turner and other filmmakers of the Cinema of Transgression, Price’s films, which were occasionally made under pseudonyms such as Tom Rhoades (no relation to the comic Tom Rhodes) and Fag, stand apart with his shocking use of found footage. Splicing together random reels combined with his knack for searching out distressing soundtracks, Price creates a new, somehow more traumatic narrative.

For example, Price’s 1989 film Sodomthe first he completed in his own name–features medieval chants over footage of vintage gay porn, which Price then cut to fracture the bodies. Filthy Dreams hosting tip: Sick of those guests that just never leave? Well, just put on some Sodom and watch them scatter!

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

This all goes to say that Price’s work–whether film, slides or sculptures–has always terrified me, true to his own goals. And just in time for Halloween (consequently the last day of the exhibition), the experience of Price’s exhibition at Callicoon is a haunting and oppressive one with the shocking appearance of Price’s corpse-like sculptures such as Eat Fuck Live Shit Want Need, as well as the cacophony of clicks and flashing lights from the multitude of slide projectors throughout the gallery. In particular, Price’s transformation of Callicoon’s basement gallery space with his slide projection triptych Meat Chapter 3 only heightens the horror with its confined claustrophobic space, rendering Price’s spliced bodies inescapable.

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

By choosing to exhibit Price’s mid-1980s works, The Dry Remains firmly puts Price’s artistic interest in deformed and ill bodies in conversation with the anniversary of his own shooting in 1985. Randomly shot in the abdomen in Nicaragua, Price’s near fatal wounds are visible in the portraits of Price in the hospital by Russell Scholl, which open the exhibition. Displaying these photographs inside the doorway, the images infuse Price’s work with his own personal pain and bodily suffering, presenting an almost heroic creation myth out of Price’s near death experience.

And I too am in pain while writing this after destroying my hands, elbows and knees in a fall while running in a decidedly less dramatic physical blow than Price’s shootings. However I’m ready to write and also engage with Price’s radical revelry in torn flesh, bloodied bodies and mortality.

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

In his seminal Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes famously discusses the difference between studium and punctum in regards to photography. For Barthes, studium is “that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like/I don’t like. The studium is the order of liking, not loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds ‘all right’” (27).

Unlike the more mundane and civil studium, Barthes identifies the punctum, which “will break (or punctuate) the studium” (26). Describing this punctum, Barthes explains, “This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest in the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole–and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident, which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (26-27).

Luther Price, Light Fracture Backwash, 2015 35mm slides, acrylic paint and varnish on canvas

Luther Price, Light Fracture Backwash, 2015
35mm slides, acrylic paint and varnish on

Looking at Price’s works, particularly his slide projections in The Dry Remains, Price’s trade appears to be depicting this punctum. Describing punctum alternately as “wound” or in terms of piercing and stinging, Barthes firmly puts the notion of punctum into corporeal terms, reflecting Price’s own bodily focus whether the personal wounds of his shooting or his artistic practice.

In Price’s slide projections such as Meat Chapter 3, Price employs various techniques to decay his slides including burying and applying salt, cleaner and most recently, sugar, creating these visible tears, smudges, smears or ruptures in the film. Through the unconventional methods of destroying his own medium, Price’s obscured patterns on the slides both efface the image and add a palpable sense of decay easily linked to the bodily horrors depicted both within the slides and on his canvas work such as Fibroid Kitchen Party.

Luther Price, Fibroid Kitchen Party, 2015 velum on canvas

Luther Price, Fibroid Kitchen Party, 2015, velum on canvas

Taking Barthes conception of the punctum as a wound or a tear, both the deformed bodies in the slides and the slides themselves feature this piercing punctuation, conflating body and slides. For Price, the slides are made body, becoming an organic living form, prime for destruction. The slides decay just as natural bodies decay.

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

Installation view of Luther Price: The Dry Remains

In Camera Lucida, Barthes writes, “Very often, the punctum is a ‘detail,’ i.e. a partial object. Hence, to give examples of punctum is, in a certain fashion, to give myself up” (43). Just as in Price’s own obsession with the physically grotesque, the reactions of horror, fear and fascination leads to a self-investigation, self-recognition and self-identification of the viewer’s own body, physical condition and mortality with the distressed bodies in the works. In many ways as Barthes discloses, by revealing one’s own reaction to Price’s photographic and artistic wounds, the viewer also reveals themselves.

2 thoughts on “Penetrating the Punctum: Decay and Deformity in Luther Price’s ‘The Dry Remains’

  1. This was absolutely fascinating reading. Thank you so much for creating and sharing this post. Oh, and the photos were great too. Which is how I got to your website…through Camera Lucida!

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