Ken Price (1935 – 2012) was a game changer on many levels. He was among the first wave of ceramic artists to apply the concepts of abstract expressionism to the medium, but he quickly moved into the pop camp. He further differentiated himself from his contemporaries by departing from the Asian-influenced surfaces favored by may of the post war Western ceramicists, painting his surfaces in ultimately-American car paint, firmly establishing himself in the forefront of the California School in the 1960’s.
From 1960-1965 he showed at Irving Blum’s legendary Ferus Gallery on La Cieneca Boulevard in Los Angeles together with Ed Ruscha, Ed Keinholz, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and others. This made him one of the first ceramists to cross over into the fine art world, helping to establish the medium’s viability in the larger art world for generations to come.
The current exhibition of his work at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea (May 9 – June 28, 2014), showcases two specific series of his work. In one gallery there are seven examples of his small- scale Specimen Rocks, and in a separate gallery, large-scale bronze composite sculptures, some of his last work.
The Specimen Rocks (1983-84) are very small, ranging in height from about two to four inches, and exhibited in custom-made glass and wood display cases, adding to their aura of preciousness. They are composed of smooth-surfaced objects embedded in jagged-edged naturalistic forms and painted with metallic and lacquer-like paints.
They resemble post-Pompeian artifacts, half engulfed in lava, now partially chipped away. It would be a mistake to dismiss these as exercises in texture fetishism, as one might when seeing their photographs.
Their small scale and jewelry-case displays draw their viewers in and around them, demanding us to concentrate on their complex and clever forms, made all the more engaging by their fastidious craftsmanship.
Marks’ installation of these works is exquisite. Each work is given generous space for people to walk around and view them from all angles. One piece, the 3.25 inch high New Mexican, is given an entire gallery to itself. Each piece is spot lit in a largely-dark gallery, the effect of which is to pull the viewer from object to object on a course of discovery.
In a separate gallery, Marks exhibits the last series Price produced before his death (from 2009 – 2011). These large-scale pieces (equally unintelligible from photographs, where they look almost intestinal) are unctuous biomorphic forms that began life as clay and ceramic. As engaging these forms are, their surfaces are downright mesmerizing. They are covered with an iridescent matte-textured paint that has a contrasting undertone, apparent only at certain angles of lighting.
As one walks around the piece the undertone follows as the direction of the light changes. It is reminiscent of the surprising sparkle of iridescent oil spot glazes on the rarest of Song Dynasty tea bowls, or the multi-hued glow of a fiery black opal. The initial perception of the phenomenon feels magical, as if the piece is glowing from within, striking a primal cord of wonder in its viewer. The surface is so perfect as to be obviously mechanical, which creates a fascinating juxtaposition to their organic forms.
Does size matter? This exhibition, given the disparity between the two very different scales, forces this question. To my mind, it does. The specimen rocks, would not work in the same way in a larger scale. They would lose their jewel–like quality, and therefore, their power to draw in the concentration of the viewer.
The gallery’s press release quotes Price as saying that these works can be considered as maquettes, for possibly larger, even monumental versions, (sounding like a Hollywood producer setting the public up for a hopefully-profitable sequel).
On the other hand, the large-scale iridescent pieces would not be as engaging in a smaller scale. Their broad curves play with the light in a softer, more enveloping way, making them more like color field painting, as opposed to the glint of color they might have elicited in a more diminutive size.
Eric Zetterquist, a specialist in Asian ceramics, is the New York Editor for CFile.
Above image: Installation view of Ken Price sculptures on display at the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. Image courtesy of the gallery.
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Ken Price, Specimen Rocks, at the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York (May 9 – June 28, 2014). Video courtesy of the gallery.
Large sculptures by Ken Price at the Matthew Marks Gallery. Video courtesy of the gallery.