New York

Ken Price

Willard Gallery

I miss the element of class-consciousness that once informed Ken Price’s work. The sociological exposés of “Happy’s Curios,” 1972–77, were sincere in their tribute to an ethnic, proletarian art, while the ceramic “gemstones” of 1983 were insincere in their exaggeration, jewels from the bowels of the earth hound for the upper crust. With the latter, Price applied Freudian theory to his Marxist critique: looking like glittery chunks of excretory matter, “anally retained” in glass display cases, their needlessly repetitive forms suggested the motive that lies behind the accumulation of wealth. In another body of work, the “Architectural Cups,” 1976–80, Price chided art history. With their Bauhauslike yet nonutilitarian shapes, they defy the Bauhaus injunction that form follows function; one can only imagine them in use at a tea party for contortionists. The utopian dream of workers and artists united seemed to have been rebuffed, possibly because it had been proposed by an intellectual class rather than rooted in a populist reality (or perhaps because it left little room for the eccentric and the superfluous, qualities so much in evidence in the earlier “Curios”).

Without irony, there isn’t much to Price’s most recent ceramics. With their metallic acrylic paints and their conjunction of “natural” facets and “artificial” planes, these “Geometric Cups,” 1985, recall the earlier gemstone aggregates of 1983 (in fact, they could almost be the matrix out of which those fake jewels were yanked and cut); but where the earlier sculptures presented smooth surfaces to which “raw” material still clung, the newer ones present smooth surfaces that have been cut out of a ceramic "ore?’ Although both play rough cuts against high polish, the distance formerly created by the display cases has been replaced with an atmosphere of coziness: in the two discrete forms that comprise each sculpture, there is a Darby and Joan companionship. The braised angles are often edged with bright color, as if prolonged, intimate handling had rubbed off the plating of the alloy.

But what if the “Geometric Cups” are, after all, a sardonic commentary on the recent trend toward lyrical abstraction in sculpture; on the fact that a likable, ingratiating style is popular once again? It is undeniable that these are among Price’s most tactile and charming clayworks. This is not the first time he has employed (apparently) nonsensical words as titles, but, in conjunction with the lumpen shapes, names such as Karpungy, Blumpo, and Gunktor are highly suggestive of baby talk. So is the insistence on binary components: each set shows and tells the difference between short and tall, thin and fat, solid and hollow, bright and dark, as if they were the lisping beginnings of some system of learning. Is Price an art-world Piaget describing the stages of child-art development, or is he one of the children?

Jeanne Silverthorne