Paintings by Leslie Kenneth Price
by Brooke Benedix and Jennica Forrest
It takes a lifetime for an artist to ever be finished with a piece of art. For an artist like Leslie Kenneth Price, he’s sensible when it comes to knowing that a painting can never be finished. If he feels that the composition, depth and color are in the right place, he can move on, but he accepts that every finished piece will always have a few loose ends that will act as a catalyst for the next piece. Sensibility to Price is having a firm grip on his artistic motives without abandoning his intuitive, subconscious mind. As an abstract painter, the only time Price ever hits an artistic block is when his heart is no longer in a piece. For a piece to make sense to him, it has it feel right—to make sense.
As a child, Price recalls his earliest moments of art making while at a summer camp. Placed in an infirmary to control his asthma, Price longed to play with the other children he saw outside through his window. An alternative to his boredom was sitting at a table and drawing, which became a lifelong practice from that time on. From a young age, Price looked to nature as the inspiration for his art. While growing up in the dense, urban South Bronx of New York, Price found quiet solitude in Van Cortlandt Park, which he considered his second home. When he wasn’t shoveling snow off the courts in the winter to play basketball with the other neighborhood kids, Price spent his time playing in the park, physically surrounding himself with nature and drawing it. His time in the park would come to serve as a metaphor for life. Price remembers “Noticing and being amazed by weeds pushing up through the cracks of the sidewalk and causing the cement to crack more. It always seemed that there must be something more to all this.”
After attending the High School of the Arts in Manhattan and later earning an art degree at The Pratt Institute, Price made the decision to move to Oakland, California in 1971 to attend graduate school at Mills College. Traveling cross-country on his BMW motorcycle with the East Coast blurring past him and drifting away, Price began to experience a certain psychological freedom by beginning a new life on the West Coast.
Shortly after arriving in the Bay Area, he began to delve deeply into Zen Meditation, which helped him find a sense of who he was during an uncertain time in his life. “I felt like I was this leaf blowing in the wind, like there was no me in there. I was a chameleon. I had a sense there had to be something else. It was always about getting to something essential about me.” Price believes that his practice of Zen Meditation has a lot of overlap in his intuitive art making process.
One of his artistic concerns is addressing what is meaningful to him and using that as his inspiration when he paints. Before beginning a piece Price will often look at maps of the area he inhabits, old photographs taken over the years or he goes on walks, all of which facilitates his creative mindset. Price also finds inspiration in past masters of abstraction, in the works of artists such as DeKooning, Hoffman, Ad Reinhart, and Rauschenberg. These mundane, daily acts of seeing inform his work. “I’ve always believed that if you input something, it’s going to shape you in some way. It’s going to manifest out.”
Price will title his pieces only when the work is finished. His titles have nothing specifically to do with the art he creates; instead they are reflections of his thoughts during the period of painting the piece. His inner dialogues provide inspiration for his titles depending on what is currently going on in his life. A good example is his piece, Impermanence, which is influenced by the Buddhist concept regarding the aging process, the life cycle and the experience of loss. For Price, impermanence signifies death, his children getting older and observing his garden. The concept of impermanence is important to Price, and this work is reflective of its significance. Price attests that his titles are like markers in time, each one documenting his thoughts and bringing back a specific memory.
It could be argued that Price’s intuitive and spontaneous skill of creating abstract works of art springs from his life-long appreciation of Jazz music. Jazz is full of complex rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and improvisation, and one can postulate the visual equivalent in Price’s work. He grew up listening to his father play saxophone in a Jazz band, and since early childhood has been influenced by the music’s artists and developments. While painting, Price frequently makes artistic decisions in the moment rather than methodically planning each stroke of the brush out. He explains that, “Improvisation makes Jazz unique and that quality takes on the appearance of abstraction in my paintings.”
Despite his love for Jazz music and the influence it has had on his art, Price claims that he is unable to listen to Jazz when he works because it tends to pull him out of the work. Instead, Price prefers to listen to Classical Baroque music which functions as contemplative background and doesn’t make such an intellectual demand on him as Jazz or songs with lyrics tend to do. For Price, his focus must be on the subconscious space he is tapping into in order to mold the piece with his own individual influence.
Viewers of Leslie Price’s art have commented that they feel like they are seeing nature at a microscopic level. Various shapes seem to morph before one’s eyes, completely idle at first glance but very much alive as one approaches the work, much like slides viewed under a microscope. Price states that his goal in painting is for his pieces to appear still and simultaneously active to the viewer. For instance, When Is Enough, one of his paintings from his Enfold series, contains much more than the biomorphic shapes and lines seen with a passing glance. For the artist, his hope is that his paintings will engage people to look because his works are not intended to be a quick read for the viewer. Price’s translucent layers entice viewers to take a closer look and lose themselves in the evocative space he has created. When Is Enough reveals Price’s fascination with the natural world. Engaging with this painting is like being inside an all-encompassing flower. Pink and brown cells float around, carrying all the potential in the world. A huge, yellow stamen shoots up from the bottom right of the piece, perhaps reminiscent of his childhood memory of the weed in the sidewalk crack. The brownish-green surface seems to vibrate with life, yet it has a very peaceful quality to it, which recalls Price’s Buddhist influence, leading the viewer to infer that Price is truly one with his art form.
The still life force of the natural world is Price’s metaphor for life. When Price steps out into his yard everyday, he observes the stillness of the trees and is aware that there is movement and growth occurring at a microscopic level that he can’t necessarily see, but can sense. “The trees, they’re still but I know there’s a vitality happening at the same time. There’s life happening. That makes sense to me as a metaphor for life. Wherever we look, there’s this vitality, a life force within us that’s active until we’re dead, but it’s something that’s going on-- that you can’t see, yet you sense it—being quiet and being dynamic simultaneously.” Ultimately, this is the intention of Price’s paintings—to lure viewers to stop and quietly contemplate the stillness and the movement that occur simultaneously in his pieces. Price surprises himself at times when he sees a work and realizes that he is no longer simply looking at the work, but is instead deeply sensing it.
As a mature artist, Leslie Kenneth Price has an authentic and humble approach to art making that is truthful and identifies with his past and his philosophy of nature being the metaphor of his life. His work expresses the process of movement that is the catalyst to change, which we can never see happening at the moment, only the accretion of effects over time. Contemplating his work, a process of experience occurs that begins with seeing and understanding. At any given moment, a viewer of Price’s work may realize that one is no longer just looking at the surface of a piece, but visually attempting to discover something within it, a longing to reach for an unknown that can’t seen but can nevertheless be sensed. It takes something more than just a glance to appreciate Leslie Kenneth Price’s paintings, there is a demand for the viewer to surrender one’s attention to the work and connect with it on a higher level.
This essay was jointly prepared by HSU students Brooke Benedix and Jennica Forrest, with editorial assistance by Erin Grady and Kiersten Deacon.