Before Robert Price paints, the Kansas University art professor sits.
He sits for a long time.
And as he sits, he's tuning into an alternate plane, an empty space that's full of energy. His first brush strokes in this meditative state are somewhat chaotic, he says.
"At the beginning, there's just daubs of paint, basically, and as that becomes more and more complex, it's like your own intelligence starts to sort things out, and you begin to recognize patterns and ... constellations of forms start to happen," Price says while setting up his latest exhibition. "You begin to actually recognize the patterns arising, and then you start to work with those patterns as a kind of natural process.
"Going through each painting is kind of a reiteration of mind's process toward symbolism and meaning. In a sense, it almost mimics creation itself."
Of course viewers don't have to transcend into a meditative realm to enjoy Price's paintings, which are on display through Aug. 27 at the Ann Evans Gallery in the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. The show, "Sky Mudras: Paintings by Robert Price," features 15 of the artist's large-scale gouaches, displayed mostly chronologically from 1997 through 2003.
Amoebic, microbial forms float amid celestial bodies; sky and wind swirl organically, and land lies geometrically behind shapes that seem to slither and others that lie dormant, lifeless -- whatever arises in "the matrix of possibilities," he said.
Seeing the world fresh
As the paintings progress through time, the color palette expands from dreamy blues and blacks to include vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Price says color has been a natural addition as his grasp of process painting has tightened.
It may seem curious to purposefully clear one's mind before beginning a painting. Isn't a flow of ideas paramount to creativity?
Not necessarily, Price says, especially if the ideas are tainted.
"The perennial problem of the artist is to see one's world with fresh eyes," he says in a statement accompanying the exhibition. "Process painting is the practice of stepping beyond our fixations into the space of our fresh ground, where we meet our naked mind beyond conception. When we switch our allegiances from product to process, something very powerful and delightful happens to our state of mind.
"No longer under the pressure to produce 'ART' objects as personal ego territory, we have the luxury of being able to investigate, appreciate and celebrate our unique situation through our discipline."
Price recognizes that critics might contend that his creative process rids him of any responsibility for the work.
"It's totally the most responsible you can be because you have to be responsible and open to what's coming through you," he said.
Honoring that flow of information, that mystery, by committing it to paper can be magical, says Price.
"For me, that's the meditative and spiritual aspect of the work is that it can lead you to a state of mind where you're really connecting with your experience and it's not just a purely intellectual process," he says.
In fact, the results sometimes can be humorous. A sense of Price's playfulness comes through in painting titles like "Haunted by Reincarnated Road Kill" and "When Time Stands Still Everything Moves."
Price has been teaching art at KU since 1969. He grew up in Topeka, got an undergraduate degree in painting from KU in 1961, spent a year in Europe and then went to the San Francisco Art Institute for a master's degree. He earned it in 1965.
His work has been featured at a variety of art venues, including the Wichita Art Museum, Wichita; Crown Center in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Richmond Art Center in Richmond, Calif.
He's usually in his studio all day, though he's not always painting.
"Sometimes not painting is more productive than trying to force things," he says. "It's a very slow process."
Some of his paintings took several months to complete.
Price has been influenced by the surrealists, "mostly because of their interest in mind and the psychological dimensions and a desire to see through what the cultural fixations were at the time."
The abstract expressionists also touched his aesthetic.
"That was mostly just because of starting a painting without any preconceived ideas, just jumping off," he explains.
Price hopes a similar sense of immediacy comes through in his work and equates the feeling he hopes viewers absorb to being in the country at night, when it's pitch black and the wind's blowing through the tree.
"There's this sense of a whole world around you, but your eyes and your mind can't fix things, so there's just this kind of energetic presence of things swirling around," he says. "The quality of that experience is something I hope the paintings might stimulate in people."