Hiding in Plain Sight: Seth Price’s "The World"
by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian
Seth Price’s poetry is all about occlusion—from wrapping a gallery’s walls with a thousand-foot Mylar strip, to vacuum-sealing objects, to displaying barely legible wooden silhouette cut-outs, to producing a book called How to Disappear in America. Repeatedly, Price murks the divide between packaging and art. At dOCUMENTA (13) the lining of the clothing he exhibited were patterned with corporate logos and visual static copied from the insides of security envelopes, both camouflaging and engulfing the wearer. His relationship to the viewer can feel aggressive in its drive to destabilize and confront. With his work, we’ve gone through the same arc for the past ten months: befuddlement, followed by grudging appreciation, followed by deeply personal response. It’s as if, subliminally, Price’s art has infected our psyches. Beyond their cool surface, Price’s projects operate upon libidinal economies. From the Folklore U.S. press release: “I’m Going to the Post Orifice: Seth Price.”

From Dodie’s journal, the day after the first meeting of our Seth Price study group at the Wattis:

The trees on 11th Street are slated to be cut down. To mark them, they’ve wrapped the trunks with foot-and-a-half-wide strips of plastic. Like the plastic they wrap boxes in for shipping. Like the plastic they wrapped the boxes of our archives with when they were sent off to Yale. Over their striated sheen people have attached decorations—a flower to one—around another is tied a red ribbon with a note attached beneath it. It’s addressed to Omar, the guy whose remains were found nearby in a suitcase. A body, like the tree, unsuitably wrapped. The note reads, “2015. Omar, May God keep you in His loving care. Forever loved and missed.” Thinking how Seth Price wrapped the walls of a gallery with a long strip of packaging plastic—and his lamination of objects—his calling into question what is figure, what is frame. What is packaging, what object. This disconcerting blurring of distinct categories. The trees are contained and marked and girded. Since their death is announced, the plastic has the resonances of an embalming. The plastic embalms them.


One of Kevin’s publishers, The Song Cave, makes a fair amount of its budget by selling editions of artists they know. In the fall of 2016 we saw that there was going to be a drastic price cut in its Seth Price piece. Usually $300, The World (2014) was going to be half price for Christmas. (This in itself set the tone for dozens of lame jokes about the coincidence of this artist having the word “price” right in his name—there seemed no way around it. “Half Price,” then, was the name of the game back in December, when we bought ourselves this Price drawing.) In practical terms, our search for meaning in Price became sharply reduced to this one artwork, and as we have sat through all prior presentations, we were always on the game for those that would allow us to understand this drawing better, and this paper will bring up many of them, one by one, sometimes in clumps.

Seth Price, "The World," 2014; archival pigment print, 9.5 x 13 inches.
Seth Price, "The World," 2014; archival pigment print, 9.5 x 13 inches.


The World itself—the print edition from The Song Cave—divided us instantly. Kevin was enamored from the start, and it was he who wrote the check. Dodie found the piece uninteresting. The repeated heads of this retro-looking woman seemed no more than decorative patterning, perhaps reflecting the corporatized designs lining Price’s envelopes and fashion line. But as soon as the disruption of the patterning became apparent, she couldn’t stop looking, couldn’t stop interpreting. We began feverish speculation: Who is the subject of the image? The repeated woman, or the woman who’s hiding in the hat of the multiple woman? Is that a sly look on the hidden woman’s face, or is she sleeping? Is this about a fracturing of one glamorous woman, or are these supposed to be different women, hinting at the conformities enforced by fashion and style? The glamorous woman whose hat has been colonized suddenly appears to have hands. But the hands don’t look human. Her top hand looks like a goose’s head, the bottom a wing, suggesting some sort of animality. Again, what is the subject of this drawing: the replicated woman or the disruption? Is The World about mutancy or rebellion? The similarity in shape between the glam woman’s decapitated head and Mick Jagger’s wrapped head on the cover of the Goats Head Soup album adds another layer of creepy. Price’s patterning here suggests camouflage, but it is impossible for us to decide if the patterning is about irrational excess or protection. Attending the class session on Price’s book How to Disappear in America, we learned that it is a survival manual copied from online advice that is out of date and therefore useless in actually helping someone disappear. From this point of view the book becomes a sad, desperate fantasy. Price frequently confronts human intensities in an affectless manner, a move that’s either brilliant or eye-roll inducing, depending on the viewer.

Anonymous street installation on phone pole; photographed by Dodie Bellamy, 2017.
Anonymous street installation on phone pole; photographed by Dodie Bellamy, 2017.


In the middle of our year studying Price we were invited to curate an exhibition at the beleaguered di Rosa Foundation in Napa Valley [now the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art], a “raid the icebox” sort of show that allowed us access to the 1800 works of art collected by the late Rene di Rosa from 1950 through 2010—work largely made by artists of Northern California, work of a maddeningly excited range of quality. As the year began we assumed that our work there would have nothing to do with the Price trail, but we couldn’t keep the two life paths apart. They began to merge almost from the start. The curators at di Rosa, interested in keeping their museum au courant, asked us to shape our show into one that reflected museum interest in themes of social justice and political edge. We decided to look at work that paired display with secrecy, and many of the key works in our show dwell on surveillance and camouflage.

Camouflage has long had links to artists and naturalists; a century ago the painter Abbott Handerson Thayer of the Hudson Valley was brought by the Allies to the battlefields of WWI to test his then-controversial theories of natural animal markings. He propounded, for example, that birds were often white, blue, or yellow to blend in with the sky, while snakes and badgers grew earth colors on their backs, and fish grew translucent. He and his team of surveyors argued against then-standard use of solid color, say, khaki uniforms, urging instead the use of camouflage in disruptive patterns to evade detection from the air or from fifty yards away on foot. Today’s dissidents have adopted the lessons of Thayer—from donning masks and face bandannas at protests, to painting their faces in geometric patterns to evade all-seeing surveillance cameras—to disrupt exposure.

Charles Allan Gilbert, "All is Vanity," 1892.<br />
Charles Allan Gilbert, "All is Vanity," 1892.


As we learned, many of Price’s works and texts enact such disruption or say they do), and when we opened this drawing we saw pretty much a textbook case of optical illusion, and that’s the portal to full-blown camouflage. The World soon came to remind us of the duck-rabbit illusion that Wittgenstein wrote about so eloquently, and then of the drawing of the same era in which a young woman is shown regarding herself in a circular mirror, but when you look again, the beauty and her reflection seem like vacant eye sockets as the vanity mirror turns into an enormous skull. Both works were created in 1892—All is Vanity by an 18-year-old Scottish artist called Charles Allan Gilbert, and the duck-rabbit conundrum by an anonymous illustrator for a German humor magazine. Perhaps power relations began to resemble one another in the dawning age of Freud, and so the numbers of visible objects seemed to compress in response—1892 was the year the diesel compression engine was invented, and the year in which Thayer began to preach the gospel of obliterative coloration. He studied the ways in which animals and plants sought to mimic the coloration around them, and, to avoid predation, hid themselves in nature in paradoxical, even nutty, countershading displays.



We speculate that in The World, Price is quoting from the German duck-rabbit illusion: look more closely at the disruptive woman’s hands. Soon enough you’ll see, as we did, that it’s not a hand, it’s a masterstroke of eye-foolery. Similarly the woman’s face in the hat poses those same Wittgensteinian questions—Is it a woman, or is it a hat? In How to Disappear in America, references to hats abound. “Wear a hat... everywhere. Ha ha ha Yes indeed. Hat’s [sic] hide the face from cameras. Most cameras are higher than your head. Spend a lot of time looking at the counter. Or your shoes.” Hats equal hiding in plain sight.

Thayer and his family were great friends of William James, the American philosopher and pragmatist, and James apprenticed his two sons to study under Thayer as the artist began an expansion of his painting factory on a vast scale. As the First World War approached, a number of artists and military theorists began to converge at Thayer’s work, and the art of camouflage blossomed. Armies of men, clad in multicolored patterns, oblique as snakes, dizzied background and foreground. Thayer toured Britain and France on the battlefields with his dioramas, with the sponsorship of John Singer Sargent and Teddy Roosevelt. And, as we know, his eccentric theories won out. Did they save lives? Or did they make war easier to wage?

Seth Price, "Secret," 2008.
Seth Price, "Secret," 2008.


Camouflage conceals by confusing figure and ground. Price’s wooden laminated silhouettes—e.g. Secret and Lighting (both 2008)—at first appear as abstract maps, but soon vision flips, and both hands and profiles emerge from the gallery walls in what previously had been white space. What are we looking at, and is it looking back at us? In this light, we watch the peacocks roaming the lawns of di Rosa--their real eyes small and barely alert, but when they spread their tails, eyes of startling beauty and sexual refinement stare at us with a seductive Darwinism. The “night has a thousand eyes,” wrote Cornell Woolrich, the midcentury horror writer, speaking of the stars that know our future above. But at di Rosa, feathered eyes preen and sashay down the stairs and through the dirt paths even when the sun is out.

Peacock at di Rosa; photographed by Kevin Killian, 2017.
Peacock at di Rosa; photographed by Kevin Killian, 2017.


French sociologist Roger Caillois (1913-1978) questioned the value of camouflage and mimicry, finding in them, instead, a dangerous and compelling excess. For Caillois, the form of an organism always exceeds its survival needs, and an organism’s tendency to mimic its environment emerges from an instinctual desire to lose itself in space. In her essay “Animal Sex: Libido as Desire and Death,” Elizabeth Grosz explores the eroticism of such excess:

Erotic desire . . . is a mode of surface contact with things and substances, with a world, that engenders and induces transformations, intensifications, a becoming something other. Not simply a rise and fall, a waxing and waning, but movement, processes, transmutations. That is what constitutes the appeal and power of desire, its capacity to shake up, rearrange, reorganize the body’s forms and sensations, to make the subject and body as such dissolve into something else, something other than what they are habitually. (1)


What is hat. What is woman. What is human animal figure ground. Members of our research group say they don’t find Price’s work sexy, but we see an eroticism in Price’s drive towards copying, illusion, reframing, collage, generation loss. Instead of meaning we get “movement, processes, transmutations,” a libidinal impulse to dissolve and rearrange the outside/other/self. Even Abbott Thayer’s project to dematerialize animals into speckled grasses and reeds is starting to feel compulsive and exorbitant, leaving in its wake what Caillois termed “irrational residue.”

Abbott Henderson Thayer, “Peacock in the Woods,” 1909; illustration for Thayer’s<br />
textbook Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.
Abbott Henderson Thayer, “Peacock in the Woods,” 1909; illustration for Thayer’s
textbook Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.


Seth Price calls his drawing The World, and that struck us, as it was perhaps supposed to. It’s such a large thing to say about something so simple on the one hand, and so old-fashioned on the other. In Napa, when the fires raged, we worried first about our art show—now postponed to January 29, 2018—and then about the flock of peacocks that roams the place, outlasting their master. They seemed like the dumbest birds in the world—but their excessive coloration allowed them to survive anything, for they had long ago joined the ranks of the immune. The most colorful and eye-catching specimens of the animal kingdom were, as Abbott Thayer painted them, indistinguishable from their surroundings. They have disappeared in America—or onto a canvas even larger and more diverse, the world.

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Kevin Killian’s recent books include two books of poetry, Tony Greene Era and Tweaky Village, from Wonder Books, the third volume of his Selected Amazon Reviews (Essay Press) edited by Dia Felix, and Tagged: Variations on a Theme, Killian’s intimate photographs of poets, artists, painters, musicians, and filmmakers naked, or nearly so. With Dodie Bellamy, he edited the anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997 for Nightboat Books .

Dodie Bellamy’s writing focuses on sexuality, politics, and narrative experimentation, challenging the distinctions between fiction, essay, and poetry. Her chapbook, “The Beating of Our Hearts,” was published in conjunction with the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Her recent essay on radicality appeared in the Philosophy section of the 25th anniversary issue of the French fashion magazine
Purple. She teaches in the writing programs at CCA and SF State.

Notes:
(1) Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn, Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism (Oxford: Taylor and Francis, 1995), 284.