Since the early 2000s, Seth Price has sought to trouble the institutional and commercial boundaries that separate art from other sectors of the economy—a position outlined in his personal manifesto, “Dispersion” (2002), an essay that opens with Marcel Broodthaer’s dictum “The definition of artistic activity occurs, first of all, in the field of distribution.” While Price’s exhibitions have largely mined the field of digital distribution, his recent show at Petzel shifted focus to the circulation of luxury commodities, paying particular attention to the fashion industry.

Price’s sartorial turn dates to last year’s Documenta, where he collaborated with New York-based designer Tim Hamilton to create a line of ready-to-wear clothing comprising military-themed cloaks and jackets cut from stiff white canvas. Liner material was patterned with the logos of UBS, Capital One and Paychex, and the crosshatching found on the inside of business envelopes. Viewers at Documenta were able to purchase these garments from a local department store, but the two racks of clothing on view at Petzel could be handled only with museum gloves and were not for sale—not to the casual visitor, anyway. Thumbing through the Price/Hamilton collection, I found myself wondering who would want to wear these clothes, and why. Does Price conceive of the consumer as yet another vehicle of dispersion? Or is the consumer the butt of a neo-Marxist joke—mere “human currency,” as Surrealist writer Pierre Klossowski might have it?

Commodity packaging has long been a key concern of Price’s. In 2004, he embarked on a series of “canvases” that consist of rectangular panels topped with various objects (flowers, bomber jackets, masks, rope) and then enclosed in vacuum-formed plastic. Though this body of work began in an arch-critical mode, emphasizing the artwork as a collectible bauble, the selection of recent tableaux on view here, dating from 2009 to the present, shows Price emerging as an earnest colorist. Compare, for instance, the riotous pastels of PShop IRL (2010) with the brooding shadows of “Ghosts” Packet Sweet (2012). While the former features only inkjet-printed plastic and the latter combines fabric, rope, resin and paint, the difference in materials matters little. Surface effect is all that counts in these works, Price’s polemical edge having softened into a grudging, even masochistic, estheticism.

Price often presents himself as an irascible, but I prefer his quieter perversions of late capitalist culture, which are exemplified by his recent solo experiments in fabric. Since Documenta, he has mobilized Hamilton’s network of suppliers and fabricators to create his own line of larger-than-life canvas envelopes, crosscutting between sites of packaging and distribution usually kept apart: the mailroom and the showroom. Outfitted with a mix of decorative tassels and buckles and lined with logo-print fabrics, the envelopes conflate the modest parcels of everyday communication with the bloated handbags of the Marc Jacobs era. In doing so, they gesture to the weirdness of our luxuries, which bend to the mandate that everything circulate, and nothing remain stable or fixed—least of all art. Caveat emptor indeed!

Photo: Seth Price:
“Thanksgiving” Packet Sweet, 2012, acrylic and enamel, tinted resin and printed plastic vacuum-formed over knotted rope, 46¼ by 44½ by 2¾ inches; at Petzel.