Shadowlands

Al Price's light works blow up real good

"When the Unabomber's in his cabin, he's thinking about blowing people up, not about making the bomb," says Al Price.

Four of Price's kinetic sculptures--which he calls "Traps"--are on display at Scottsdale Center for the Arts until September 1. They are carefully balanced, welded steel structures, mounted on Swiss watchlike machines that are as sleek and symmetrical as the pieces they lift, lower and turn. Price jokes that they've had a "proctologist's approval."

But the machines are not the point, as beautiful as they are. Price looks at them as the guts of the sculpture, the bomb, as it were, mere projectors for the carefully scripted shadows they blow up on the museum walls.

"I find the actual metal very frustrating," he says. "It's not what it's about, even slightly. So when people come by my studio, I have to describe it by saying, 'Now, it's not this. This is the skeleton, and the body is much different. It's all about the shadows.'"

The traps, he says, are about "release." "I have to get you in to get you out," he says. And indeed the movement of the shadows is arresting, and detaining.

Each of the sculptures hangs or is mounted in the center of a 14-by-21-foot room with rounded walls, and each is lighted by a single halogen bulb. As one bulb dims, another in the next room lights up, a new trap starts to spin, and the viewer has no choice but to follow the movement.

First comes a dual sphere, a glass globe inside a set of steel meridians, and, as it begins to turn, the shadows race around the walls making the whole room seem to spin like a Tilt-a-Whirl.

"There's some people who can't take the motion in that room," Price says. "They come in and then wheel their oxygen right back out the door."

As the light fades in the first piece, the second, in an adjacent room, magically beams and its structure becomes animated; four wire-frame tubes, radiating out horizontally, slide gearlike up a vertical tube. The shadowy effect makes everyone in the room feel as if he is being lowered in an elevator cage.

When the light comes on in the third room, the shadows lift like a net on one side and then swoop down on the room from the other. The fourth trap looks like a pair of mattress coils hanging from the ceiling, but seems to project tiny, delicate bubbles on one wall and giant Tinkertoy cement mixers that turn and dump on the other.

Price sees them as psychological studies. "Are you with me on this?" he asks, over and over. The shadows build like existential tensions, reaching a crescendo and then suddenly going white, like the end of a bad day at the office, he maintains, an escape from a predicament, a trap that has been sprung and then released.

He points out the overt sexuality of the pieces--tubes sliding in and out of tubes, a machine that resembles an ironwork spermatozoa. And then to deflate his own portentousness, he reminds himself that when children look at the latter, with its arcing halogen bulb on the end of a wand, they see a roller coaster instead. And while adults feel caught in the descending gloom of the shadow nets, children run laughing from one side of the room to the other, chasing the light.

"Accessibility is everything in my mind," Price says. "At the end, no matter what you're talking about, there has to be some kind of joy-slash-humor to show you've got the picture or it just becomes one of those drawings we did back in high school art class."

Price, 35, has a big, spherical face and a flat Boston accent, steel blue eyes and a minimalist crew cut.

He came to Tempe about four years back to get a master's degree in sculpture from Arizona State University, and when he had it in hand, he fled to a small town outside Santa Fe where he'd have the blue skies and clear light that artists need, and he started experimenting with projection.

He crafted a blimp out of steel and Lycra and suspended it from a crane he welded himself, counterbalanced with a fan and a generator and outfitted with a slide projector. Lighted and running at night, it appeared as if the blimp were a spinning movie screen, as in the film Blade Runner. And the entire mechanism collapsed into a trailer which he towed from coast to coast and then deployed at such auspicious venues as San Quentin Prison.

He mounted a projector on a rickshaw and then put on a white spacesuit so that he could turn himself into a human movie screen, then ambled through the nighttime streets of Santa Fe, lighted with the alternating images of Marilyn Monroe, JFK and a green frog. One woman jumped out of her car to stare at the vision, and when Price and his contraption drew near enough for her to hear the generator and see the rickshaw, she gasped that she had mistaken him for an angel.

If Price's New Mexico living quarters were beautiful, his existence there was not. When he'd head into town to pick up his mail, the locals would give him the finger as they cruised by in their lowrider cars. He wondered if D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe had suffered such indignities.

"I thought it had all the earmarks of a neat place to live," he recalls, "but after about a year it was more like [the film] Deliverance. You know, 'Squeal like a performance artist.' So, enough of Rural America. I had to see the Throne of the Art Gods."

He moved to New York, got a day job welding the floor of a lard factory in TriBeCa, and began work on an intricate kinetic structure he called "Caruso's Motion Picture," ("Art Detour Sneaks Into Town," April 6, 1995). New York proved both inspiring and daunting; the view from the Brooklyn Bridge, he says, seemed like the world opening up with possibilities--and the whole moment spoiled by the feel of a cold steel gun barrel in your back. And so after a year of banging his head on the New York art scene, he jumped at the chance to return to ASU to fill in for a semester for an art professor on sabbatical.

Price now lives in a vintage Airstream trailer parked on a concrete slab in an industrial park in Phoenix. It's a minimalist bachelor pad, aluminum inside and out, with no decor other than a few of Price's sculptures, small metal birds on wheels, with human faces and decidedly Mayan-looking paint jobs. He sculpts in an uncooled, unheated M*A*S*H-style Army tent, adding his welder's torch to the 110-degree days, so hot that he describes it as "an out-of-body experience. I'm hovering overhead watching myself welding. This Btu's for you."

If it seems a loose lifestyle, he's focused his welding torch on a tight new style.

"I used to scoff at jewelers whose sphincters were just a little too tight," he says. "Come on, dream a little harder than that."

Though his trap sculptures are being displayed in tight rooms with smooth white walls, they were built here on the concrete lot. Price claims he sometimes talks the drivers from the nearby earth-moving company into parking their trucks near his trailer after hours so that he can have something to project images onto.

"I don't have a ceiling, but I have several acres of floor," he says. "And, boy, from a couple of hundred yards, these shadows are immense. They get pumped up."

Price sees those traps as commercially viable entities, artworks he can set up in public places.

"There must be a lobby waiting for one of these," he muses. "They're such an economical way of activating some big space. With ten pounds I can move the room. To achieve Vegas with a 50-watt light bulb and 20 pounds of steel is a trip."

Al Price's "Traps" continues through Sunday, September 1, in Lower Gallery at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street.

For more details, see Art Exhibits listing in Thrills.

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