Los Angeles

Ken Price

The Ken Price exhibition called “Happy’s Curios” (Happy is the artist’s wife) was a critical riddle to which the wrong answer is given, bravely, in the first sentence of Maurice Tuchman’s catalogue introduction: “ ‘Happy’s Curios’ is a work of art about pottery.” The (or a) right answer, it seems to me, is that “Happy’s Curios” is a collection of pottery that provocatively moots the question of art. But what does this mean?

“Happy’s Curios” comprises hundreds of cups, plates, jugs, bowls and other mostly functional ceramic objects, with supporting drawings, posters and a tapestry, the pottery installed in finely carpentered wooden cabinets. The brilliance and variety of design and color made for a dazzling, elating experience, the result of five years labor by Price at his current home in Taos, New Mexico. The central inspiration is the work of bordertown Mexican curio artisans, familiar to Price since his teens. From these anonymous craftsmen he adapted forms, patterns, techniques and such figurative motifs as the boy eternally asleep under a sombrero—a dicey kind of cultural appropriation, perhaps, but done in a convincingly sincere spirit of homage, with no edge of mockery. Three large ensembles called “Death Shrines” employ just the imagery one might expect—skulls, urns, plastic flowers—but none of the lurid feeling; they are elegantly spare, entirely cheerful.

Price has long been recognized as perhaps the most formally acute and most sheerly skilled of the California ceramists. Even his considerable erotic work has generally had a restrained presence, even a slightly disturbing kind of affectlessness, at polar extremes from both the bumptiousness of the Bay Area school and the orientalizing mysticism of his early mentor, Voulkos. It may seem hard to believe that this emotional austerity could triumph over the whimsical potential of the bordertown thematics, but it’s a fact. Price’s gaudiest new objects are as self-referential, as practically autistic, as a mountain by Cézanne. Which is not to say that they are thereby elevated out of craft into art. On the contrary. A self-referential cup is a very cuppy cup indeed. To insist, as Tuchman seems to feel he must, that Price’s cups are art is, for me, to obscure them—and to point up how in our day “art” has become an increasingly devalued honorific.

As art, “Happy’s Curios” is hybrid, sterile. As pottery, it is a feat of stylization that I hope is not being lost on professional potters. The stuff is absolutely beautiful. for one thing, and one can well believe Tuchman that the cups “feel better to grasp and raise than any . . . I’ve ever held” (the lucky stiff). More than that, however, “Happy’s Curios” drops hints for a shake-up of traditions in sophisticated craft, much as some recent work in painting and sculpture has suggested at least a yearning for a new, late-20th-century movement in the decorative arts. I don’t know what Price thinks he’s doing, but I can imagine no more wholesome role for him than, having sneaked his pottery into the museum as art, winning a place for it there as craft. Such a general development seems called for both by the miasmic confusions of contemporary art and by the late-modern mediocrity that clutters up our kitchens and our daily lives.

Peter Schjeldahl