Lake and Lumber: The spirit. Spirit. Spirit of Negativity in Seth Price’s Holey De-cor (And No One Wants to Be the Jackass)
by Drew Heitzler
Fuck Negativity
- Cory Archangel, Archangel Surfware Collection, 2015

Fuck Seth Price
- Seth Price, Fuck Seth Price: A Novel, 2015

Seth Price, "Gold Key (Black 5)," 2007. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York.
Seth Price, "Gold Key (Black 5)," 2007. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York.


In 2008 Seth Price opened his third exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York, following on the heels of a solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Zurich. The show, which garnered him an Artforum cover and inclusion in that year’s Whitney Biennial consisted of a book, printed wall works on metal, and flat wall sculptures in laminated wood and painted aluminum. It was his first show, that I am aware of, that did not include film or video. A simple press release provided the process by which the wall works were made. Pasted at the top of the release was an image of a drawing; two hands, sleeved in a flouncy dress shirt, engaged in the formation of a shadow play character. (1)

The exhibition consisted of eleven works, including the book How to Disappear in America.(2) Four pieces, described as ink on Dibond, are composed of elements that appear at first to be rhombuses of gold aluminum on which variations of a dancing figure have been printed in different colors. Upon further looking, a relaxation of the eye creates, through negative space recognition, a set of alternative images: variations of a hand passing a key to another.(3) A larger piece, again on Dibond, appears first as an abstract map of countries or continents outlined in spray paint, before snapping into an image of a woman kissing a man delineated by the negative space of the wall.(4) But wait a second more and your mind changes again. The man’s face isn’t really positioned correctly for a kiss. Maybe a kiss on the cheek, but the lift of the woman’s chin suggests that she is just as likely whispering in his ear. Other mappings, all constructed of laminated rare wood veneers, depict: a couple singing a duet; a diptych of a person lighting another’s cigarette and a boy bowing his head as he passes something to an older man; a diptych of a hand with a pen pointing to a contract where a signature is required by another and a hand spooning food into another’s mouth;(5) a triptych of a woman breastfeeding a baby, a priest presenting communion to a man, and a hand dropping money into a shamed beggar’s cup; and the silhouette of an older couple, again either kissing or passing a secret, paired with a small framed drawing of two hands mingled in the same manner as the image from the press release, this time creating the profile of a jackass.(6) The ambiguity resulting from the positive/negative space reading of this work allows the viewer some room to determine meaning, specifically within the artifacted borders of Price’s engagement with the appropriation of mass commerce.

Seth Price, "Untitled," 2008. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York.
Seth Price, "Untitled," 2008. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York.


Tim Griffin’s analysis of Price’s work as retro advancement through strategic retreat in his 2009 article “The Personal Effects of Seth Price” and David Joselit’s framing of Price’s work within an epistemology of search in his article “What To Do With Pictures?” (2011) are both thoughtful readings of Price’s output up to this point. In both cases they focus on his use of effects to create temporal and spatial holes to be filled by the viewer. While both address the affinity with forms of commodified distribution and capitalist flows that this device implies, neither locates the kernel of Price’s project there, preferring instead the formal and conceptual maneuvers at which this work excels. This presents an opportunity that I wish to explore, as this work emerged at a precise and extreme moment in our cultural and technological history.(7)

In his application of the term "effects" to Price’s work, Griffin analyzes the video sculpture Digital Video Effects: “Spills” (2004)—a work which takes as its substrate archival footage by Joan Jonas of Robert Smithson and Richard Serra arguing with art dealer Joseph Helman about the fancy prices afforded late abstract expressionist painting—to present two prescient points. First he suggests that for a young artist emerging into “an unprecedented boom in the market for contemporary art,” Serra’s statement that “most of our young artists are just ripped off at a very early age” and Smithson’s insistence that “nobody has the right to legislate or judge what I’m doing” must have had both a sobering and empowering effect. Griffin goes on to suggest that while Price seems to agree with his predecessors, he does so “only while underscoring a sense of inevitability around the objects of Smithson’s scorn.” If Smithson’s project was one of transcendent evasion and removal, Price instead attempts an infiltration, “performing a disappearing act of his own, perhaps, but only in the fashion of a purloined letter.”(8)

Joselit focuses not on Smithson but Serra, suggesting that his 1967-68 list of verbs—to roll, to crease, to drop, etc.—could be repurposed and applied to “the behavior of pictures within digital economies.” He offers three categories for Price’s “‘procedures of formatting”: “to disperse,” “to profile,” and “of effects.” At the end of the section discussing this third category, Joselit makes an interesting observation:

A contemporary art devoted to circulation, is, of course, a creature of a specific ecology: the market. But instead of either giving up or selling out, Price, like more and more artists, games the market by surfing it. (9)


What we read in both Griffin’s and Joselit’s evaluation of Price’s work is a position that seems to conform to models of dispersed subjectivity and affirmationist acceleration, both prevalent in theory and art criticism of that moment.(10) Within this affirmationist mode creative agency is reduced to, at best, strategies of rupture through mimetic exacerbation, and at worse an uncomfortable consonance with a nostalgic, dynamic, and unfettered global capital of real abstractions.(11) On this point, Polly Staple, in her review of Price’s 2008 exhibition at Kunsthalle Zurich, makes it plain, insisting that, “Critical discourse blends easily with aesthetic productivity, a fairly voracious but straightforwardly aspirational tale of free-market capitalism and cannibalism. This is what it means to choose to participate.”(12) Indeed, within Price’s own writing there is an expressed comfort, even admiration, for capitalism’s distributive capacity at the level of desire. But when it comes to Price, it is never so simple, as he writes in Dispersion, quoting The Rosarium Philosophorum:

“Where we have spoken openly we have actually said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures, we have concealed the truth…”(13)

Seth Price, "Untitled," 2008. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York.
Seth Price, "Untitled," 2008. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York.


With this in mind, we may attempt a negative space reading of Price’s wall sculptures, not as images of dispersed subjectivity mapped through abstraction, or as a surrender of agency to the forces of affirmation, but instead as “the redemptive circulation of allegory through design”;(14) artifacts of resistance to the hegemony of real abstractions revealed through moments of human relation. In this mode Price’s work is not a trace of absence, but of spirit. Spirit. Spirit; a holey decor secreted within real abstractions’ most abstract and opaque signifier. Coded as figures of metastability, these objects oscillate between states of meaning. A ghost and the shell, until the eye lands and the mind decides. How these small amounts of randomness expand, not only within real abstractions but also within art, culture, and politics reveals itself as a problem of consciousness persistent within the realm of effects. The lake of our feeling is the lumber of life. And no one wants to be the jackass.

.+*

Over the years, Drew Heitzler has been an artist, a gallerist, a curator, a writer, an experimental filmmaker, a director of animated shorts, a graduate lecturer, a cinematographer, a bar owner, an amateur motorcycle mechanic, and a pretty good surfer. He is currently trying his hand at dark comedy screenwriting, zine publishing, and analog photography.


Notes:
(1)While the shadow itself does not appear in the drawing, close inspection suggests the profile of a black male. Indeed a quick Internet image search of “hand shadows” reveals that the character in question is an African “boy” from a hand shadow play called The Crocodile Man. The selection of this image as an introduction to this show is intriguing but remains a mystery. Perhaps a nod to Barack Obama, the first dark-skinned president of the United States, the multiethnic progeny of European and African heritage, who had been inaugurated just a month before the exhibition opened?

(2)How to Disappear in America is an edited collection of appropriated texts detailing instructions for going on the lam, purloined from various online and analog sources and reprinted as a hard-bound book by Seth Price.

(3) In his video lecture piece Redistribution (2007—ongoing), Price gives us a look at the file from which one of these images was taken and we learn that the key is being passed, at least in the example presented, from a male to a female. This image also appears on the cover of How to Disappear in America.

(4) Price’s use of abstracted maps in this exhibition bring to mind Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of Jorge Luis Borges’ use of cartography in On Exactitude in Science as a representation of simulation preceding and insinuating the real.

(5) Again in Redistribution, we are offered a look at the digital image from which the silhouette is formed over a map of the United States. A man in a shirt and tie is playfully force-fed a piece of cake, an event common at wedding receptions. In the negative space silhouette of the finished work, the aggression of the act is palpable, but not the playfulness. Coupled with the ominous tone of the pointing finger in the contract signing, the work carries within its relations a rather threatening tone. Only after clues delivered later, in Redistribution, may we understand the piece as artifacts of matrimony, an occasion of joy. But even this joy is left disrupted, in this case by the choice of depicting contract and ceremonial submission, relations of which Leopold von Sacher-Masoch would certainly approve. Translatory oscillation is in full effect here.

(6) But there is an intriguing difference here: While the top hand in the drawing is outlined but left empty, revealing the white of the paper, the bottom hand is penciled in, darkened, as if it were its own shadow. The one and the other here become two halves of the same body. A mysterious image once again, which in the context of the exhibition brings to mind the paradox of Buridan's ass; a hypothetical situation in which a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water, and since the ass always goes to whichever is closer, it dies of both hunger and thirst. A version of this situation in digital electronics is described as metastability, in which a small amount of randomness acts as a tie-breaker, and the circuits settle into one state or the other.

(7) By 2008 the world wide financial crisis of 2007, dubbed the Great Recession, had really taken hold. The derivatives market had collapsed, as had insurance and mortgage markets. Financialized capital, already under constraints by new banking regulations enacted after 9/11 to stem the flow of terrorist financing, was now even more desperate for both tax shelters and opaque points of trade. As we have seen over the last decade, cash based real estate and the art market, often intermingled, provided an ideal solution. Interesting then that 2008 also marked the year that Frieze, once a magazine of art criticism but by then mostly a circus tent of art commerce, took on as its sponsor Deutsche Bank (now infamous as the premier site for Russian money laundering and the only bank that will still do business with the Trump organization). Also by 2008, the iPhone, introduced the previous year, made hand held computers globally ubiquitous, and Facebook, which was opened to public access in 2006, had turned online social networking into the dominant site of information exchange.

(8) The Purloined Letter is a Victorian era short story by Edgar Allan Poe, the third of his three detective stories featuring the fictional C. Auguste Dupin, and considered an important early forerunner of the modern detective story. More significantly, the story was central to an ongoing debate between Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida on whether a proper translation of meaning was achieved by a structuralist or deconstructive reading of the text. As we shall see, translatory oscillation is central to Price’s work.

(9) I would contend that this metaphor of surfing which often appears in analyses of accelerationist theory, networked communications, and relational aesthetics betrays a vital misunderstanding of not only surfing but also of that which constitutes a surfable wave. This, however, is a topic for another essay.

(10) Accelerationism, having infiltrated post-‘68 cultural production and social thinking, was contested by advanced art through critical attacks on both object and subject, until events initiated by the abandonment of Bretton Woods in ’71 and then exacerbated by the collapse of ’89 made this position untenable. In its weakened state, art took a turn toward the transcendent as a mode of resistance. But this renewed critique of institutions was quickly absorbed into a convivial aesthetics of relations operating on a global scale, mostly unsatisfying even in its antagonistic form. The election of 2000 followed quickly by the attacks of 9/11, the War on Terror, and the ascendency of neoconservative and neoliberal policies at home, abroad, and within the art world, would only heighten the mood of leftist retreat into which Price was emerging as an artist.

(11) I borrow the term “mimetic exacerbation” from Hal Foster, who asserts in his recent book Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (2015) that this is the most potent form of critique employed by recent advanced art, though he concedes that it is a dangerous game, easily capable of sliding into forms consonant with that which it critiques.

(12) Polly Staple, “The Producer,” Frieze 118 (Oct. 2018).

(13) This 16th-century alchemical treatise published in 1550 includes a series of 20 woodcuts in which the hermetic androgyne is prevalent, understood as an allegory of Mary, Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit.

(14) Seth Price, Dispersion, 2002.