Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective

Reviewed by Sarah Williams 

Does this book deserve praise from every direction? It does.
Are the photos of Ken Price’s works masterfully shot? They are (thanks Fredrik Nilsen!).
The glowing white, glossy pages hold unusually effulgent properties, soundly serving the vibrant colors and detailed textures of Price’s often vaguely pornographic ceramic sculptures.
Not just another look-book for collectors, this extensive collection of photographs includes exhibition shots, glimpses into Price’s studio and stunning landscapes of Taos, New Mexico the site of Price’s larger workshop. Then there’s the individual saturated, polychrome plates on the pristine ivory of thoseglowing, glossy pages. The ongoing argument around ceramics’ place between craft and fine art gets thankfully punched up.
Exhibition curator Barron opens her essay by crediting Price with liberating “the medium of ceramics from the controlling hierarchy of crafts.” One of the handful of artists to successfully straddle that spread, his practice was obviously concerned with both ceramics’ traditional uses and materiality as well as making the medium undeniably sculpture. This produced works like those featured in his 1978 exhibition at LACMA, Happy Curios, “a room-size installation made up of several wood cabinets with open shelves ripe with highly colored glazed ceramic pots, plates, bowls and cups that owed its inspiration to Mexican folk pottery,” (pg 18-19) as well as curvy, globular, brightly colored ceramic sculptures that are at home alongside the other “West Coast Sculptors” of his time.
I think what connects the utility of craft and the useless beauty of art for Price is a certain sense of mindful intimacy. Quoted on the wall of the exhibition, he says, “small objects are about intimate experience. And they tend to subvert detached analytical viewing by drawing you in closer to the physical reality of the piece.” By “small objects” he was referring to the roughly 2-foot tall sculptures that plump much of the exhibition, but I would argue that you can embrace most of ceramics with the same closeness. Whether a piece is perfectly at home in a museum or pulled from someone’s cupboard, there is something about ceramics that makes you want to get close, to touch it. Perhaps because most of our experiences with the material come in the form of interacting with items that we use the spectrum of senses to experience, that we handhold, detail-observe, mouthing and forking them as cups and plates, planters and pots, tchotchkes. In this way, experiences with ceramics seems more sensual and intimate than with most other sculptural materials.
Even when the artist and curators display objects on white pedestals, under whirring lightbulbs, in a high ceilinged pavilion, I want to touch them. I inch closer, usually eliciting a “please step back ma’am” from the guards, that breaks the magnetic pull. Each edge, bulge, orifice, curve, detailed spot of paint, the guards insist you stay an arms-length away (and a million pixels away typically). But the book! With it’s sensuously detailed images that seem so touchable that you find yourself fingering the page, the smooth glaze, the contours, the pockmarks, the holes. There is some solace in being able to hold the book between your hands, turn it around, smell the fresh ink. It returns a bit of the craved intimacy of ceramics, just a little bit closer though never quite close enough.
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Stephanie Barron and Lauren Bergman, Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective, (Prestal USA, 2012)
Images: Install of Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective at LACMA and pages from the catalogue. Images are (c) Ken Price, photos by Frederic Nilson, courtesy of LACMA.