Ken Price: A Survey of Sculptures and Drawings, 1959-2006

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4 out of 5 stars

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Ceramics might be enjoying a kind of hipsterish resurgence in art right now, but it's never been taken particularly seriously as a means of expression. Certainly not in the avant-garde scene of early-’60s Los Angeles. Regardless, it was here that Ken Price made his name. Going against the prevailing trends of the time, he avoided making anything big, cerebral and monumental in favour of the small, hand-crafted and almost wilfully cheerful. 

The ceramics on display here span half a century, and fall into two broad categories. There are the formal pieces: speckled, blobby, amorphous and weirdly sentient-looking. In many of them, sections appear to be lopped off, revealing a brightly coloured ‘flesh’ beneath. Then there are the functional pieces: jugs, cups and plates, some decorated with snails, others with palm trees. No, seriously. And no, they look awesome. They drove critics spare, who, in an era of conceptual purity, were appalled by art that had one foot in the world of – shock horror – craft.

Alongside these are dozens upon dozens of Price’s drawings and watercolours. Lots are tight, graphic, all-American scenes – highways, factories, beach houses, buxom women – depicted in lurid acid-trip colours. They reveal an instinct for impeccable design, one in thrall to Japanese art. More thrilling are the pictures where the ceramics themselves make an appearance. These occasionally reach surreal heights, like the drawing of a turtle swimming through the ocean with a teacup fixed in its shell. Don’t ask why. Just be glad that Price did it – and that Hauser & Wirth has put on this rich and much-needed survey.

By: Matt Breen

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