In his remarks on the Ken Price retrospective that traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, Hyperallergic’s John Yau expressed his lack of surprise that the artist “had to wait until he was safe in heaven dead to have his first museum show in New York.” It’s true that there has long been a negative prejudice handed down on high from the museum establishment. This idea that somehow ceramic arts are less important because of their association with craft is outdated. Several recent shows, including Kathy Butterly at Tibor De Nagy and an exhibition of works by Ron Nagle and George Ohr at George Adams Gallery, seem to signal something of a moment for artists who work in this medium. Now, two concurrent Ken Price exhibitions — Large Scale Sculptures and Specimen Rocks — at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea seem to embody the argument for the power of craft. If there are arbitrary distinctions about ceramic art as less than serious, these theoretical snares do not extend into this gallery space.
The pristine installation of Specimen Rocks brought together the artist’s series of aptly named minuscule sculptures. Each of the 13 works on display was carefully lit within an artist-made vitrine. Though the overall effect suggested a level of preciousness, the works themselves are anything but. Each work shines with a distinct light, thanks largely to a wide variety of carefully selected iridescent paints. All of the works in this exhibition were made between 1982 and 1984, and seem to riff on the specific beauty of geological forms. I imagine that Price took great pleasure in juxtaposing the rough geomorphs (reminiscent of lava rock) against linear, geometric passages that are smooth and almost slick in appearance. There is an almost anthropomorphic quality to this contrast, as if the “rocks” themselves are molting, pulling themselves apart from the inside. Every now and then one catches a glimpse of architectural design, reminding us that these are man-made structures.
What these forms do first and foremost is force us to look. They encourage us to question what the eye is given to believe at first glance, and to carefully consider every surface from a variety of angles. Though mountains impress us with monumental scale, the geological forms beneath the Earth’s crust are equally impressive for their volatility and unreachable mystery. Price seems to do his best to harness this power.
Large Scale Sculpture sees the artist some 30 years later, pushing the bounds of his medium to large scale. While ceramics are often associated with diminutive scale and precious nature, there is nothing little about these. Six ceramics ooze upwards from their white pedestals. They shimmer with iridescent paint, changing in the light. Their surfaces seem alive and alien. Though made of a bronze composite, they seem pliable, like a sentient ooze frozen in the middle of an intricate mating ritual. His “Yogi” is a tunnel of arched golden muscle, its bulbous geometry suggesting an arched back fully extended in a backbend. “Spider Blue” (2011) seems to be straining against the weight of gravity. pushing itself upwards in a graceful loop. These are some of the largest works that Price ever made, created towards the end of his life. The increased scale adds a bodily impact to their shimmering, delicate surfaces. They are just large enough to relate to the human body and are perhaps too pleasurable to not feel pornographic. Their luminous bulges are uncomfortably luscious.
I leave this exhibition with an indulgent smile plastered across my face. I have gotten away with seeing something taboo. The is a peaceful air about the room, a sense of accomplishment that comes from decades of sparring with the same medium. Both exhibitions seem to serve as poignant bookends to an illustrious career. They place us in opposing scenarios; one pulls us inward, daring us to mush our faces against the vitrine glass, while the other pushes against the gallery space, triumphantly oozing physical pride. It is the ability of both rooms to equally elicit physical and emotional reactions in the viewer that marks the prowess of the artist. Price’s two exhibitions teach us that a true mastery of scale is about making us question our expectations and notice the space around us, rather than dwarfing us with massive size.
Ken Price is on view at Matthew Marks Gallery (523 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 28.