Since he began making art at the turn of this century, Seth Price has used an array of mediums to create a remarkably diverse body of work. He seems to both love and loathe the material incarnation of an idea and to be ready to undermine any expectation one may have of his practice. His work can be formally rigorous at one point and loose as a doodle at the next. In keeping with the constant churn of his output, this exhibition was unlike any the artist has mounted before.
There were nearly 80 works on view—most of them hung salon-style on the walls, though a few were shown in vitrines and a handful of artist’s books were laid out on reading tables. Almost all the pieces on the walls were framed, but a number of them looked as if they were pulled from the bottom of some almost-forgotten heap. Variously tattered and fresh, drawn and painted, printed and glued together, the selection had a kitchen-sink quality that reflected the range of Price’s interests.
Curated by Achim Hochdörfer, the show was supposedly of drawings, though any two-dimensional work of a certain scale, it seems, could be a drawing for Price. The pieces on view were ostensibly all studies for works dating from 2000 to 2015. There was no effort to categorize them further, which made the show more interesting and less didactic than it could have been.
For the most part, Hochdörfer did a fine job of selecting studies that have stand-alone interest. Study for a Christian Novel (2001-02) is an amusing text-based piece that sketches out characters and plot points for an apocalyptic thriller. It’s like a map for a world that never was. Study in Taste for a Video (2000) depicts a boggle-eyed cow standing beside a woman lifting weights in a body of water. It’s a humorous work, lighthearted and kid-friendly, but it also exemplifies Price’s skill for surreal illustration.
Price is a talented draftsman, but technical facility by itself can be lifeless. While Calendar Study: Wrecking Crew (2003) is a fine drawing of a worker with a wheelbarrow, it’s mainly interesting in its relation to Price’s 2003-04 series of calendar paintings—digitally constructed compositions that mimic the look of generic store-bought calendars. Price’s worker is a sketched copy of a figure from an etching by Charles L. Sallee Jr. that depicts a demolition crew in action. Price ultimately incorporated a scanned version of the full Sallee etching into one of his calendar paintings, which makes the viewer wonder why he first made his own drawing singling out this figure. It’s as if the sketch represents not only a road not taken for the final painting but also the possibility of a different approach to the entire series.
Although the exhibition’s haphazard arrangement resulted in an interesting viewing experience, it made it difficult to track the artist’s progression or growth. Then again, Price doesn’t seem to advance his thinking in straight lines; his course of movement has always been more of a dispersion.
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.