Magazine – April, 2004
"Children, the insane, and primitive peoples all still have—or have rediscovered—the power to see. Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible."
For thirty years, Tony Price created art from nuclear surplus—the detritus of Los Alamos National Laboratory that he found at the Zia salvage yard. A timely exhibition of his work is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts. The show includes twenty-two masks and small sculptures from the artist's vast oeuvre of over a thousand pieces.
Throughout history masks have been used as a means of contact with the spirit world. They protect against the unknown forces of the universe by invoking assistance from the supernatural in all matters relative to life. A mask extinguishes the human being as a person and makes him submit to the powers of spirits. This possession/transcendence usually occurs through ritual dance. As theologian and cultural anthropologist Gerardus van der Leeuw wrote, a mask “opens a world in which anarchy and possession lie in wait. Whoever puts on a mask is no longer absolutely certain of himself.”
The first masks were made by shamans who were believed to have direct contact with spirits. The prehistoric "Sorcerer of Les Trois Freres," painted on a cave wall in Ariege, France, is the earliest known image of a masked figure. Because masks are imbued with supernatural powers, the Balinese keep theirs in jars, those of the Dogon live in the back rooms of shamans' huts and are fed daily on the blood of chickens or other livestock, and the masks of the Dan people are locked in boxes.
By making icons of the world's religious and spiritual traditions from materials discarded by the birthplace of the bomb, Price became a contemporary shaman/alchemist, transforming objects filled with "the demonic energy of the weapons system" into entities possessed of positive forces. The artist was not only dealing with the nuclear politics of the present, but also following a great tradition, reminding us of "our cosmic conscience to energy." He could see in many directions at once and pull them together while being present in his own.
Price was a master craftsman. Each object in his masks seems to be there for its shape, surface, and texture, as well as for its balance to the essence of the whole. Artist Brad Smith told me, "Tony was able to confront the geometric organization of a thing in a comprehensive way. He was making far-ranging connections. He manipulated forms in space the way Hopi Elders give their work a spirit." Price was also a musician, so the masks have a polyphonic anatomy that gives them visual vitality. Like musical compositions in which two or more independent melodies are juxtaposed in harmony, the bilateral symmetries of Odin/Chief Nordic God, Atomic Quetzalcoatl and Samurai Spirit Mask/Nagasaki are not static. Their architectures express visceral interactions of war and wisdom, death and resurrection, fear and fertility. The masks pull in meanings from other dimensions, dizzy with movement on all levels. They seem to be in psychic consort with ancient objects in the National Museum of
Anthropology in Mexico City and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The artist was a wizard of wry humor. His cartoonist's sensibility followed in the tradition of nineteenth-century French artist, political and social satirist Honore' Daumier. The essence of Daumier's satire was his ability to interpret mental folly in terms of physical absurdity. Both Daumier and Price were known for their radical stance and the freedom with which they used materials. Price's Beware of Mad Generals with the wire brush moustache, First Mutant Man Born Without An Asshole with the formed metal face split by a rusted crease, and Deer Spirit Mask with large luminous polyester eyes, are clever caricatures portraying the complex absurdity and madness of our world.
Price's art, like that of Swiss painter Paul Klee, was an obsession played outwith wide-open wonder. Both artists were exploring the workings of the universe in relation to the spiritual, and how the physical manifests in the metaphysical. While Klee's paintings demonstrate a powerful abstraction, Price's masks are charged with narrative and humanization. Price was urgently telling us what it means to be human in relation to the forces that may annihilate the planet. Media artist Woody Vasulka said, "Tony's story telling was remarkable—naive but very sophisticated. It was part of his art apart from his manual dexterity and became his creative venue when he could no longer make sculpture. It is a great loss that no one recorded him toward the end of his life."
Price's impact went far beyond his Atomic Art. As cartoonist and writer Jonathan Richards related, "Tony was a sacred jester. He was a real force in the lives of all who knew him. So many were influenced by his personality, vision, mysticism, and the way he stretched our minds. Even when you didn't understand him, you were still interested in what he had to say."
The Friends of Tony Price have plans underway to build a permanent home in Santa Fe to house one hundred forty-four of the artist's sculptures. A benefit will be held at the Lensic Center for the Performing Arts on May 16th.