Published  04/06/2021

Walter Price: Pearl Lines

Walter Price: Pearl Lines

Price’s works reflect the instability and unpredictability of our times, with the themes of race and Covid running through much of the work, but it is nevertheless an exuberant show

Walter Price, Pearl Lines (Installation view), 2021. Photo: Rob Harris

Camden Art Centre
21 May – 29 August 2021


After several setbacks and delays because of the pandemic, Walter Price’s first institutional exhibition in the UK is finally open. Following the American artist’s studio residency at Camden Art Centre in early 2020, Pearl Lines is largely comprised of drawings and paintings produced during that time, alongside new works made in New York under the first Covid-19 lockdown. Working across different styles and in a range of media, Price combines refined mark-making with blithe experimentation, incorporating familiar forms and idiosyncratic motifs. Nodding to collective histories and personal experiences, his works slip effortlessly between abstraction and figuration, presenting assorted urban and domestic landscapes alongside indeterminate spaces, often populated by anonymous figures and faces. Judging by the sheer amount of work on display, the global crisis has done little to dampen his resolve. From the big and brash to the small and intimate, the walls are heaving with works that reflect the instability and unpredictability of our times.

Walter Price, Pearl Lines (Installation view), 2021. Photo: Rob Harris

The essential place of drawing in Price’s practice is referenced by the show’s enigmatic title and emphasised by the first room, which is chock-full of works on paper (all works 2020 unless otherwise stated). A suite of nine drawings titled Identity (2018) sets the tone with its array of heads, faces, sunglasses and hats that emerge from varying degrees of abstraction. Characterised by bold, assured marks and rendered with a striking palette of red, black and orange, these small oil pastel and acrylic images ostensibly speak to the instability of identity. Though with Price, one can never be certain, since his work resists such reductive readings, revelling instead in poetic ambiguities. Nevertheless, the complex politics of race and colour subtly underpin much of the work here.

Price has spoken of his experience as a black artist in a predominantly white art world, expressing his desire to “dance with that whiteness” by formally incorporating the colour into his work. Indeed, several works feature prominent white squares and voids, such as a lively series of large drawings in which expressive brush strokes, paint splashes and seemingly haphazard marks dance across fields of blank space. These abstract forms jostle with recognisable motifs, such as a flagpole in Wild Blue, or conspicuous footprints in Move Along Your Way as the Days Become a Daze. Other figurative elements include hats, suns and staircases – all part of Price’s idiosyncratic lexicon of lines, forms and symbols. We might detect the influence of Albert Oehlen or early David Salle here, though the driving force is Price’s own imagination, the energetic filter through which his experience of the world is distilled and translated.

Walter Price, Pearl Lines (Installation view), 2021. Photo: Rob Harris

The cowboy hat reappears in a series of figurative drawings hanging nearby. A cluster of them is surveyed by a lone figure in Identity Everywhere, while, in West Stern, a solitary hat hovers above a field of organic forms and thick black brushstrokes, which are interrupted by a flash of colour from a collaged sunset with palm tree. With a host of anonymous characters enacting various scenarios, these visually dynamic drawings imply narrative, though the stories they tell are elusive. Among the most relatable is a tender portrait of a black man leading a young boy by the hand. Titled Always Look Both Ways, a simple reading suggests that this is a father teaching his son to cross the road. Yet, in a world of racial injustice, the man’s fraught expression hints at concerns far beyond traffic safety.

Covid’s shadow looms large in Price’s recent lockdown drawings. The pandemic is overtly referenced in Where’s Your Mask Fool, in which an overbearing judge-like character berates a sullen, unmasked man who hangs his head in shame. This is Price at his most figurative and these 10 drawings are unlike anything else in the show. They exude a strong sense of alienation – from the masked shoppers in Treat’em  All the Same, to the solitary figure staring through bars at a “stay safe” sign in Be Safe, each character seems detached and alone. Any sense of solidarity or being “all in this together” has evidently evaporated; here each person is looking out for themselves, as encapsulated by the competing group of runners in Race.

Walter Price, Pearl Lines (Installation view), 2021. Photo: Rob Harris

The second room, which is filled with Price’s colourful paintings, opens with another solitary figure in You Can’t Fall in Love With Nothing. Here, a woman’s head shown in profile surveys a cloud of white comprised of thick brushstrokes and patches of gaffer tape. The character (recalling Grace Jones with her famous “flat-top” hairstyle) appears again and again. In Passive Wanderer she is framed by a yellow square, while in Can you Coax your Mind from its Wandering she is painted against an abstract background of yellow, white and grey marks. Other recurring motifs include suns, clouds, dotted lines and, most conspicuously, sofas. While the sofa implies domesticity, many of these paintings suggest landscape and in several there is a curious blurring of interior and exterior space.

Walter Price, Pearl Lines (Installation view), 2021. Photo: Rob Harris

These are enigmatic, nebulous spaces where hazy, muted pastel washes combine with passages of thick, smeary paint and daubed marks. Price’s palette, which ranges from fiery reds and oranges through to cooler blues and purples, shows no favouritism. In fact, Price made these small, intimate works from studio leftovers as a way of overcoming the consumerist impulse during lockdown. As with his drawings, everything happens on their surfaces, with layers of thick, textured paint drawing attention to their materiality. Some paintings include collaged objects, such as a jigsaw piece stuck to So Much Intellectual Work to Remain Wrong, or a fragment of paint-daubed board screwed to Unfollow Orders. Like suddenly awakening from a deep slumber, these devices jolt you out of Price’s oneiric worlds, back to physical reality.

With more than 50 works on display, Pearl Lines feels overhung. It hardly matters though, since the show’s exuberance complements the joy of being back in these spaces after so long.

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