Seth Price is raunchy. Since the 1990s, the artist has been producing cross-genre works that combine film with technology, photography with archaeology, sculpture, mapping and even zoology – all while making music and writing memoirs and novels. Now that technology is the mainstream movement in art, he opens his first exhibition of paintings. Well, something like that.
“My work often falls between the cracks of categories,” says Price. “It used to bother me, but now I think it saved me.”
The sign on his studio door, next to a cab repair shop on an anonymous block in Queens, New York, reads Seth Price LLC and looks like it might belong to an accounting firm. Inside the studio is pretty bare. His latest work has been packaged and shipped for his first exhibition since the pandemic and his first gallery show in London.
Price, a lanky and handsome 48-year-old, prances around his studio and says he’s always been interested in painting, but until recently he couldn’t make it work for him. In part, he says, his interest grew in response to a series of lightboxes he made a few years ago.
These pieces were made using thousands of high-resolution scans of human skin — and in one case, an octopus he bought in Chinatown. The scientific camera tool that captured the images treated the photos like an archaeological dig, producing 400,000 photos that were stitched together using mapping technology and printed on fabric. But in the end you had a “photo of a human being of another human being with a camera,” he says.
Price says he thought he was contributing to photography, but many people saw it as an installation or light box. “I think that was partly why I thought it might be interesting to do things that are undeniably paintings. Partly because I think you don’t need to explain your intention and meaning when you paint. People are okay if they just accept it. People have a lot of visual intelligence for painting that they might not have for an installation.”
He adds: “You look at 19th-century painting and you realize that there are a lot of buried meanings that you don’t quite understand. They have no problem saying, “I enjoyed that, I liked that area of using color, I like the scene,” even with the idea that there’s a meaning, and even though they don’t know what it is is. There is a very sophisticated game between knowing and not knowing. But they don’t like to apply that to other forms of work.”
Titled Art Is Not Human, the London exhibition fuses Price’s ongoing interest in technology with more traditional painting techniques. Made with gels and paints, poured, brushed and smeared with fingers, the pieces were then loaded onto Price’s computer, where they collided with 3D images that reflect the techniques of his gestural painting – when applied with bold, sweeping gestures will.
“I think at the end there’s a very strange, eerie encounter between gestural painting and the space of the machine,” says Price.
The software program Price uses – Cinema 4D – is the same one used by digital artist Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, to create his dizzyingly large edition of Nuance-Free Surrealism, an edition that earned Winkelmann a $70 million payday at auction at Christie’s last year and helped cement the non-fungible token (NFT) as the art world’s hottest trend.
Price’s new works couldn’t be more different. He said he wanted to “avoid surrealism and narrativity because 3D tends to wander into those.” Not that he’s intentionally contradictory. Remaining keenly interested in technology, Price sees NFTs as an exciting development that will open up new opportunities for paid artists — in art, music and writing — by giving people new ways to share. Following the social media disappointments, “these blockchain technologies present an opportunity to rethink what a platform is and who benefits from it,” Price said. “Artists will do something really cool with it. As usual, 90% of them won’t be very interesting, but that’s not unusual.”
And while he thinks about the possibilities of new technologies, there is still life in the old ones. Price is currently working on an essay/fiction/memorabilia for the online art magazine Heavy Traffic, which is – attention – in print, and he’s also updating his ever-evolving art history/experimental film redistribution. The old never fully replaces the new, he argues, it just gets absorbed.
“All the old technologies are still great. Photography hasn’t replaced painting, things just keep being folded up,” he said. He hands me a cassette of his music as we leave (I need to find my old Walkman). His Gen Z daughter just asked him to get him everything Taylor Swift did – on CD.
“Maybe there was a lapse when people thought that or dreamed that or were scared [physical] Product disappeared, but actually we return to the realization that we love it too much. Books never disappeared, only supplemented by this different way of reading. Maybe there was a generation that was told objects were in the past, but the generations above and below said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
And so we’re back to painting.
“Painting is like an art form that has grown to perfection historically,” Price said. “It’s like a cockroach or a shark evolved to perfection. Of course it evolves, but the hanging, two-dimensional object, bounded by a frame, can last forever because it’s so damn good.”