The View from Camden Art Centre: In Conversation with Martin Clark on Walter Price

Walter Price, When time has gotten a piece of you, 2020, Acrylic, flashe, gesso on wood, 45.7 x 61 cm, 18 x 24 in.

Matthew Holman: Many of the works on show in Pearl Lines were produced as part of your residency programme. Could you say a few words about this project: How long has it been running? Do artists always hold exhibitions after the residency? What has been some of the most memorable work produced so far?

Martin Clark: Camden Art Centre has been running residences since at least 1990 and they have always been a really important part of what we do. Of course, in those 31 years many new residences have sprung up in London and also around the country and internationally. At the moment, we're really thinking about what residences mean at Camden and we're thinking hard about the format. For me, it’s always about starting with what artists might need at a particular moment and how best to support them with the different resources we have. Naturally that changes over time, but we always have had a residency programme and we will continue to – it's something we're really committed to.

At the moment, the structure is that we have one Studio Resident each year. We also have a Ceramics Fellowship which has been running alongside this for the last four years: it’s a six-month residency in our ceramics studio, fully funded by the Freelands Foundation, with an exhibition that follows it. We normally try and give a bit of space between the residency and the show, so that an artist doesn't come in and just think about the residency along the lines of: ‘Oh my God, I've got a show in eight, nine months’ time, and I just need to now buckle down and produce for the show.’ I think it's useful to try and decouple it as far as possible so that the artists can really think about the residency as a space to take risks and to try new things and to be relieved of that pressure. We’ve had some fantastic Ceramics Fellows: the first one was Jonathan Baldock, the second was Athanasios Argianas. The third artist was Jesse Darling, but because of the pandemic we had to push Jesse’s residency forward a year, so they are going to start their residency this autumn. In consultation with Jesse, though, we were able to invite a London-based artist in their place, so Phoebe Collings-James is our current Ceramics Fellow and has been able to take advantage of the facilities and the empty studio during the pandemic. Phoebe will be exhibiting her work with us this September.

The Studio Residency is much more open insofar as we have a space called the Artist’s Studio, which we use as the centre of the residency, and there isn’t necessarily an exhibition tied to it. It is invitational and we do not announce an open call: we invite an artist who we think would benefit from that time, that resource, and that engagement with us. The residency is about access to that space, but it's also a lot about the other people we can bring to that person's practice. So, we have a budget to bring in other artists or curators or writers to hold studio visits, or mentor and hold extended conversations with the artist. The way it happened with Walter was that we invited him to do the residency and he spent a month with us in January 2020; at the end of the residency, I knew we had to try and do a show with Walter so we invited him and, happily he said yes. In the past, there's been some amazing artists who have undertaken the studio residences, including Simon Starling and Mike Nelson, who both had really memorable residencies. Anne Hardy had a residency which, I think, was a really important moment in her career. Veronica Ryan was also a resident at Camden back in the 1990s and then subsequently had a show. The residency is an important part of our work.

Installation view of Walter Price, Pearl Lines, Camden Art Centre, 2021. Image: Rob Harris.

MH: The new works in the first gallery feature large expanses of white to frame the paint, pastel, and collaged material. Price has also spoken about the ‘rhythm of whiteness’ in these works. What’s your sense of Price’s engagement with white and whiteness as a focus?

MC: This question of ‘whiteness’ was really interesting to me because, during the first lockdown, I would call Walter on the phone and I asked him what he was doing and how he was getting on. We had the exhibition programmed, and we didn't know when it was going to move or how it's going to shift, but I knew he was making work. It was at that point that Walter said that he was really focusing on this idea of ‘whiteness’ which, initially at least, came out of the experience of being in those big white spaces at Camden. His studio is in New York and when I first visited him two or three years ago it was much smaller than the studio he has now, which is in another building and which I haven’t visited. Walter told me that he deliberately keeps this space quite dark and it’s not flooded with natural light. I think that being in Camden, and being in that big artist studio, and then having our spaces around him, he was really thinking a lot about whiteness: formerly as a colour, but also as an experience being in these large, white bright spaces.

With Walter back in New York in the spring, of course the lockdown happened, and he was talking about the fact that he really didn't want to go out and just buy loads of new paint and materials. It really felt like a moment to turn back inwards somehow; to take it back to basics. Part of that was trying to extend his colours, and so essentially mixing them with white so that they would last longer. By doing that, his colour palette changed. Walter and I spoke about the fact that a lot of his paintings have very intense saturated bright colours, and he's got widely known for that style. Instead, here he was really interested in mixing white with those colours to soften them and to produce this more pastel palette, but also to flatten them somehow. Walter then got really interested in all the different kinds of white you could get: he was laughing about this paint called ‘super white’! The process was very much about practical concerns and constraints, and about how to draw out the pigments and colours.

Of course, around this time was George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests and activism around Black Lives Matter. I asked him, ‘Are you thinking about whiteness in terms of the politics of this as well?’ and he sort of laughed and said, ‘Well, yeah, of course. But, you know, it's not that that comes first or the other comes first. It's that everything's intertwined. I don't like to talk about things head on.’ So, I don't think that the politics was necessarily the starting point, but it’s there in all of the work.

MH: On that note, I’m called to what Walter identifies as ‘the current state of things’, and that they are on some level intensely political and speak to our moment. In these powerful new works, the imagery features people wearing masks in the supermarket, others in jail, pictures of lockdown-induced isolation. How do you see them?

MC: In the exhibition, Walter really wanted to foreground drawing, which can be seen in that large first room with the drawings and the works on paper. I think even in the paintings, there's a sense of a drawn or graphic quality to them as well. When Walter was on the residency, I spoke to him about this the first couple of days because he was making loads of drawings, incessantly. He even used the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the approach. It's just a way for him to get stuff down and he doesn't think too much about it. Therefore, the drawings can feel very different at different moments in time, as Walter moves through different kind of speeds and processes. I think the drawings are about this kind of practice, which is happening all the time and which necessarily is about what is going on with him and with the world: that’s all definitely in there. I don't think he goes out to make a group of drawings towards either a political idea or an issue. I think it's the other way around. It seeps into the drawing practice, which is a kind of constant.

Walter Price, Dont let the clouds steal your color, 2020, Acrylic, gesso, encaustic, photo collage, and super white on wood, 45.7 x 61 x 2.5 cm, 18 x 24 x 1 in unframed, 49.1 x 64.3 x 4.4 cm, 19 5/16 x 25 5/16 x 1 3/4 in framed.

MH: What was the timescale of the residency for these works? Am I right in thinking that Walter joined you just before the lockdown began?

MC: The residency was in January and he had a show scheduled in China, and we were already saying, ‘Oh God, you're simply not going to get to China.’ It’s difficult to cast our minds back, but going back to January and February 2020, we were all really aware of the virus and we were seeing reports on the news. Walter went back to New York and it was a few weeks before it all blew up internationally. Of course, we were in lockdown probably six weeks later in the U.K. so it was right on the cusp of that moment. He wasn't really dealing with overtly political themes during the residency and those drawings that you mentioned were made in New York. When I talked to Walter about the politics and the more issue-based content of the work, I asked about the way that people might want to ascribe those readings – partly because of what it is, in terms of the content, but the titles also seem to allude sometimes to political issues. Equally, being a black artist comes with a certain kind of baggage that people want to apply to that as well.

What he has said to me in the past is that he doesn’t want to be fixed down and he doesn't like to do what is expected of him. If there's a set of expectations, that he should be making work about a certain set of issues, whether that's the Covid pandemic or whether that's the state of the world at the moment, or race, or identity, he tries to push back against that, or at least complicate it. He might address those issues and he will allow that to be in the work – but the meaning is implied or alluded to rather than hit head-on. I think that Walter actively tries not to do what's expected of him, which is a really productive approach I think. Of course, political ideas and themes are there in the work because the work's very much about him. I think it's very honest. There's a lot of integrity in these paintings and drawings, they hold and contain and work through this stuff because it's in all of us at the moment, right?

Installation view of Walter Price, Pearl Lines, Camden Art Centre, 2021. Image: Rob Harris.

MH: Absolutely. I’m reminded of the exhibition interview too, which is so playful but also so generous insofar as Walter says something along the lines of: ‘I’ve made these works and now they are for you to interpret.’ The voiceover is so eloquent and this definitely felt as though he was starting a conversation with the viewer and yet distancing himself from any kind of overdetermined interpretation of what these works might mean. For me, one of the reasons as to why Walter’s works are so compelling is that enigmatic and mysterious quality, and its tremendous formal layers. The large works on paper that confront you as you enter the first gallery space at Camden, and measure around 152 x 121 cm, are so striking. On the one hand, they incorporate collaged material, and there is so much white negative space that frames the work. They also look as though they were produced on the floor given the participation of Walter’s body in the works with the boot-prints. Could you say a little about how they were made?

MC: That group of works were made on the residency in the Artist’s Studio and the first thing to say is that it was the first time Walter had used oil pastel! This was a new move for him. Walter had spoken to me a little about the fact that he was really interested in a book of Francis Bacon’s works on paper where the oil pastel had stained the paper around the colour, the pigment, over several years, and he found that really beautiful. And so, he wanted to use these oil pastels directly onto paper with no surface or preparation. He wanted to work big because he had this large studio at Camden and he got the biggest sheets of paper he could find. He then put them on the floor and worked on them horizontally, and this meant that occasionally he'd have to step on them, which is why you see the odd footprint here and there. It wasn't planned, but he sees all of those things as part of the of the process.

For me, those works are very bodily and physical and they trace his reach as well. As you say, there are these physical prints or traces of his body and even though they are shown on the wall they have the sense that you're looking down on them, as though onto a tabletop. In some ways, they remind me of Robert Rauschenberg and the composite printed and painted works that he was making in the 1960s, which were known as ‘flatbeds’ because when you're making a print you work horizontally, whereas if you're painting then you work vertically. If you're thinking horizontally, then things do layer up and they get put on top of each other; they’re spaced and arranged differently.

Walter has also collaged these little things onto them, often using tape which features regularly in his work and sometimes resembles a drawing device to make a line or a colour. But here he's taped bits of paper, fragments, lists, and just stuff from the studio. For some people, collage is about very consciously juxtaposing or cutting up images, and putting things together in a visual or compositional way. But I think for Walter, certainly in these works, the collage element feels more like it's a way to bring bits of the studio or the world onto the surface of the work. So, rather than it being a visual or a graphic collage, it's more like a way of holding the world, or bits of the world, on the surface.

Walter Price, swoosh , 2020, Acrylic, gesso, super white on wood, 45.9 x 61.1 x 5.1 cm, 18 1/8 x 24 1/8 x 2 in unframed, 48.7 x 64 x 6 cm, 19 3/16 x 25 3/16 x 2 3/8 in framed.

MH: Price’s titles are excellent: Dont let the clouds steal your colour, To accelerate the mayhem, Wheen jeezus came to town. There are also small fragments of language in these works, too, with the lexis obscured as a figural part of the overall composition. On the one hand, they are very informal, conversational, and discursive, and on another they are very philosophical. The very last work has the words ‘SAVE YOURSELF’ half obscured: it’s both a threat and a promise, as though a frightened warning in a burning building and a direction to salvation. What do you make of Price’s use of language, both in terms of the titles and in the works themselves?

MC: The titles are super important and always bring a huge amount to the work. You don't need them, because the works are amazing without them, but when you see the title, they do something else. I think for Walter, he's really aware of what the titles do and he really enjoys that play between the painting or the drawing and the title itself. As you say, they sometimes feel more philosophical, sometimes more like a fragment of conversation. Sometimes they're funny. There's a lot of wordplay in the titles, they’re really layered, and can be read in one way and then you'll read another slightly different meaning in it. One good example of this is a work called An US Issue, but with the ‘US’ in capitals so it becomes a U.S. issue.

So suddenly it's about a really personal thing, like talking to your boyfriend or girlfriend saying, ‘Is this an us issue?’ which contains this sense of intimacy. At the same time, because Walter capitalises US, it becomes about politics and nation and all of those other things. For me, that's a really great example of what a lot of those things do and serves as an analogue for how the works work, because they, too, move from the really personal and the really intimate to much bigger issues and ideas of collective memory or history. That's why they're always flipping backwards and forwards between domestic space and landscape and interiors and exteriors. Although the titles are really evocative, there's often at least three or four different ways of reading them or taking them, and in that way they mirror the way the paintings work.

By writing ‘SAVE YOURSELF’ in swoosh, Walter demonstrates how the obscured text relates to the overall composition. The paintings themselves sometimes feel like a language: the way that he uses certain symbols in these recurring motifs, like the hats or the palm trees, and they come to resemble a kind of language or hieroglyphics that comes back again and again. When he does use real words, as you say, they're often distorted or they're obscured and he treats them almost like objects in the painting. Anecdotally, in terms of the words ‘SAVE YOURSELF’, I think that comes from the Navy [in which Price served for several years] and I think there's a command if a ship is going down: ‘save yourself’. But using that phrase, again it offers this plurality of meanings.

Walter Price, An US issue, 2020, Acrylic, gesso, and super white on wood, 46 x 61.1 x 2.5 cm, 18 1/8 x 24 1/8 x 1 in unframed, 48.9 x 64 x 4.4 cm, 19 1/4 x 25 3/16 x 1 3/4 in framed

MH: We’re delighted that seven works by Walter were recently shown at The Perimeter, as part of the Citizens of Memory exhibition that closed on 23 July. What role do you think memory or nostalgia plays in his works?

MC: I think it's interesting because I think the works relate in many ways to memory and I think that they hold a real sense of personal memory insofar as they feel as though the space is able to create an uncertain set of horizons and flowing spaces, as though they are devices or symbols or signs or figures that float in the space somehow. Walter’s works have always felt quite dreamlike to me, and quite like the way that memory works: certain images surface or disappear or emerge or sink into and out of your subconscious. Within the paintings themselves, I think there's this sense of that kind of movement in and out of consciousness and visibility. When I talk with Walter, he talks a lot about his own life, and about growing up in the South, and the colours of that place and the experience of living in Macon, Georgia. That’s really there and it comes back into those paintings. I think there's a lot of personal memory invested in them and there’s the structure of the unconscious and memory in the way that the works appear and exist somehow. They often feel like fragments and because, again, similar motifs appear across them and they feel like little snapshots or pieces of some bigger narrative.

They also have this sort of timeless quality, or sense of being out of time somehow. When I first saw the paintings, I had no idea whether Walter was his 20s or in his 80s, because it felt like he had constructed a very complete and idiosyncratic language which was almost archaic. I think that has something to do with why Walter names all his exhibitions Pearl Lines, so there's this one overarching concept that they're drawn from. At the same time, I think there is much to say about collective memory. Walter and I spoke about how the works move between the idea of the domestic and the landscape: inside and outside. They seem to shift between that personal language into something much more universal, an archetypal and perhaps collective memory. The way that these glimpses or fragments function, and the scale and the medium of the works shift, they feel like they belong to some bigger consciousness or universe.

Installation view of Citizens of Memory, The Perimeter, 2021. Image: Andy Stagg..

Walter Price: Pearl Lines is on show at Camden Art Centre until 29 August 2021.