People to Watch 2012: Lee Price, Dutchess County Artist, Beacon, NY

Meet Beacon artist Lee Price, one of our people to watch in 2012

Lee Price is soaking in the bathtub. Perched on her naked belly is a turquoise plate piled with grilled cheese sandwiches. Eyes closed, she places a bite in her open mouth. What happens after that is left completely to the imagination, the moment frozen in time — first by a camera, and then with oil paints on linen. There are many more images like it: bird’s-eye views of Price in the tub, on a white bed, sitting on the floor of the bathroom, all with food. Though staged, the meticulously rendered photorealistic paintings — some six feet in length — offer a raw, intimate view of a woman’s complicated relationship with herself through private moments with food. The Beacon painter’s uncensored self-portraiture has elicited strong reactions from people around the world, from bloggers and critics to everyday women for whom the loaded scenes are like a mirror.

Although she has been painting for more than 20 years, Price says it’s only been in the last four that her work has really gotten noticed. “I would Google myself every once in awhile just to see where I was showing up. Then one day the first 10 Google pages were blogs about my work. Ten pages,” she repeats, incredulous still. “Something about the women with food series really struck a nerve.”

lemon meringue by lee price lee price

Left: Lemon Meringue, one of Price’s photorealistic paintings, conveys a controversial message about women and food. At right, the artist with one of her favorite props. Photograph (right) by Michael Polito

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Price began the provocative series shortly after moving to Beacon from Manhattan in 2005. Her work had always been realistic in style, she says, though it never would have been considered photorealistic. “In college [at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia] I would do these giant canvases of random situations. Rooms or interiors, always with women and always with food — someone holding a bunch of carrots for no reason, a banana on a window ledge, just random things that had no purpose.” After graduating, Price spent more than a decade struggling in Los Angeles, waiting tables and painting, before she moved to Manhattan in 2002. There she began studying with Alyssa Monks, a modern master of figurative photorealism who strongly influenced Price’s style and process. While in New York, Price was commissioned to create the diorama backdrops for the Behring Family Hall of Mammals permanent exhibit in Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Natural History. “Still,” she says, “I was struggling.”

After only three years in the city, Price began looking to get out. “I needed a yard,” she says of the impulse to move upstate. “I grew up near Ithaca, so I gravitate towards small communities like Beacon. I didn’t know anyone, but I moved up by myself and I’m so happy here. I found a really wonderful town to live in. I’ll never leave.”

lee price artist
Happy Meal, oil on linen (78”x31”)

Content in her new Dutchess County home, Price continued studying with Monks in Brooklyn and honing her craft, staging scenes to be photographed and later painted. She had bought hundreds of dollars worth of cakes and desserts for one such scene, an Alice in Wonderland-inspired interior. But when it didn’t come together in the way she hoped, she began improvising, not wanting all the expensive props to go to waste. She spread a white sheet on the floor, laid out all the desserts, and called a friend to climb a ladder and photograph her sitting among them. After that fortuitous evening, Price continued creating these “chaotic” scenes of herself amongst large quantities of food. “It wasn’t until I got into the series, and really got into what I was doing, that I really understood what I was doing,” she explains. And then it comes: “I had a compulsive eating disorder when I was a kid, and eating disorders as a teen. I always had issues with food.” (The operative word being had.)
Despite this admission, Price maintains that the women with food series is not about catharsis — although the subject and composition of the works are entirely informed by her own struggle with a compulsive disorder. The overhead view, bathtubs and beds, spreads of junk food, all speak to the nature of compulsiveness: “You’re watching yourself do this activity, and you can’t stop. If you took that frenetic, chaotic, compulsive behavior away [from the scenes] they’re places where you should have peace. There’s peace there — in the tub, lying in bed — if you just didn’t engage in the compulsive activity. You’re attempting to take some discomfort away through the activity, but instead you’re creating the discomfort.”

Despite being undeniably popular — she is currently represented by high-end galleries in New Mexico, Manhattan, and California — Price’s work is controversial. Countless art blogs feature comments that range from the disturbed and damning to the resonant and appreciative. Many accuse the artist, who is assumed to be a photographer (an ironic testament to her skill), of exploiting women who so clearly need help. Others share their own stories of disordered eating and applaud Price’s boldness in going there. Positive or negative, it seems many members of the general public don’t realize that it is Price herself in the paintings; they are not a cry for help, rather an offering of help, a statement about how we distract ourselves from being present. “I don’t have an agenda about how people see my paintings,” the artist insists. “I think it’s a really positive experience to say something that so many people connect to. People contact me and say there is something in my work that they connect with and has helped them. It’s been really gratifying.”

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For her next body of work Price has been collaborating with a local photographer and a group of eight women, some of whom approached her to be subjects. The women worked with Price individually to create their own scenes, a window into their intimate emotional interiors. Food is not the main focus of all the pictures, although there will be some food in each one. “It was so striking how unique each woman’s scene was,” comments Price. “But there’s just so many memories — holidays, childhood — so much has to do with food.”

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