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“Avocado Mountain” and The Ostrich Hunt

Stuart Krimko

Ken Price, Big Load, 1988, Fired and painted clay, 12.5 x 15.5 x 17 inches. Stéphane Janssen, Arizona. Courtesy of Ken Price. Photo courtesy of Fredrik Nilsen.

Ken Price, Big Load, 1988, Fired and painted clay, 12.5 x 15.5 x 17 inches. Stéphane Janssen, Arizona. Courtesy of Ken Price. Photo courtesy of Fredrik Nilsen.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective (September 16, 2012–January 6, 2013)

and Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection (October 6, 2012–March 31, 2013)

Ken Price’s retrospective is a barely posthumous homecoming. Born in Los Angeles in 1935 and long associated with this city, he died in 2012, months before the show opened. Over the course of his career, Price demonstrated how clay could function as a laboratory for advances in the “higher” genres of painting and sculpture, despite the lack of respect accorded to it in the art world of the time. (The situation has since changed, perhaps largely due to his influence.) He allowed genres of all types to flow around and elevate one another, like the biomorphic blobs that make up his major works.

The show was designed by Price’s longtime friend Frank Gehry, who installed many of the sculptures, especially the late works with which the show begins and ends, on pedestals placed a few inches from the wall. As a result, these works could not be seen fully in the round, but the approach had the benefit of allowing them to be seen against clean white walls. This made it even more pleasurable to spend time looking at their painted surfaces, a significant source of their overall effect.

Another part of the enjoyable puzzle of spending time with Price’s sculptures is wondering how the artist worked his fingers, hands, and even arms inside them. “Sourpuss” (2002), for instance, one of the sculptures on loan from Gehry’s own collection, is a mold- and rust-colored ghost of sweeping, bulbous forms. It reminded me of the engineering feats of contemporary architecture, executed on the intimate scale of the hearth. “Avocado Mountain” (1959), meanwhile, is an intriguing example from early in Price’s career, when his work retained an overt connection to clay’s utilitarian history. It is a large jar that doesn’t work too hard to keep itself together, whose earthy greens and ochers reminded me of early Barnett Newman, or the drab transcendence of Clyfford Still.

Works not placed on free-standing pedestals were displayed in groups, enclosed within large glass cubes, like natural specimens. Being kept out was not entirely unpleasant; many of the most organically constructed sculptures make you wonder where inside and outside meet, anyway. Seductively painted, orifice-like openings give you access, but prevent full appreciation of, the central voids of these works. In one of the exhibition’s wall texts (almost all of which consist of reminiscences by Price’s peers) artist Robert Irwin describes being “touched by the color and the unique feeling that if you were to break one of his works in half, it would be the same intense color all the way through.”

Towards the center of the show was a room of Price’s paintings and works on paper. In these diminutive works, many of which border on Southwestern or Mexican kitsch, Price drew from a big, California-sized swath of New World culture. Similarly flat, cartoonish landscapes found their way onto cups and saucers in the reliquary-like installation “Happy’s Curios” that Price worked on throughout the ‘70s. (If finished, it might have been a worthy addition to the collection of works at Donald Judd’s Marfa complex, where it would have complemented the installation of paintings by, say, John Wesley, quite well.) For many, however, their most visible iteration are the labels that Price designed for the boutique mescal distillery Del Maguey in recent years.

When Price is at his best, the visual rhythm of his color feels like lichen on stone, fused to the contours of the clay without forgoing the sense that a heavy rain could wash it all away. “Jumbo” (2012), reminded me of a lightly balanced set of rocks visiting the museum on vacation from Joshua Tree. Just visible through the scrims covering the windows at the end of the exhibition was Michael Heizer’s “Levitating Mass.” The boulder, recently installed at LACMA to much fanfare, provided a nice contrast in form and mood.

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So did the small exhibition of French ceramics from the collection of MaryLou Boone, one of the premier collections of its kind on the West Coast. Tucked away on the third floor of the Ahmanson building, in a series of vitrines in front of the bank of elevators, the show featured pitchers, plates, tiles and other objects of faience and soft-paste porcelain. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European craftsmen developed these techniques in an effort to reproduce the effects of Asian porcelain. Their experiments led to objects of great beauty and complexity in their own right, and established the reputations of French porcelain manufactories that continue their work down to our day.

pottery

Narcissus Scene Cup and Saucer Set and Leda and the Swan scene Sugar Box (part of dejeuner service), 1746, Vincennes Porcelain, Vincennes, France, soft-paste porcelain, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of MaryLou Boone. Photo Susan Einstein.

Coming away from the Price retrospective with an appreciation for the hand-modeled ease that clay is capable of achieving, I was on the lookout for moments of casual inspiration. They abounded. A long-necked bottle manufactured at Nevers, c. 1640, was covered with joyously drawn flora and birds. As in Price’s late works, the composition was of the all-over variety, its rhythms dependent on the properties of brushed pigment and how it adheres to sculptural form. Places where pigment pooled or the artist’s hand changed direction revealed accidental moments of inspiration, where nature and nurture are in consort.

I love how these objects are the result of common cause. Rather than the products of a romantically-minded artist’s singular passion, they emerge from factories dedicated to the production of utilitarian beauty. Still, notable artists emerged from the industrious fray. One of the best painters associated with the Clérissy manufactory at Moustiers, Gaspard Viry is thought to have helped make a charger (c. 1700) that depicts a detailed and heavily populated battle scene. Created using the pouncing technique—in which a drawing is transferred by tracing it with pinpricks on transparent paper, laying the paper onto another surface, and applying pigment so that it seeps through the small holes—the image is sophisticated enough in terms of perspective and shading that even the most dedicated gourmand would find it hard to cover it with food.

Indeed, many of these pieces were intended solely for decorative use. The evasion of utility in ceramics had already become part of its utility. Another Clérissy dish from the same period features a dramatic, exotic hunting scene, with turban-wearing riders pursuing ostriches. One of the big birds has been struck; arrows pierce its body. The oval composition is a window into another world, through which you can make out the ferocity of the hunters and the stress of the hunted.

Painted designs weren’t the only places where things got complicated. A Nevers puzzle jug from 1755 is just that: a puzzle in which utility is a question rather than a statement. Here, use itself is decoration, whimsy, and wonder. The jug isn’t used, like most just are, to pour liquids into another vessel. It’s a jug that’s supposed to be used for drinking, whose function becomes clear only when the user plugs a small hole under the handle. Unplugged, liquid spills from holes at the top of the jug; covered, the liquid flows through a small spout and into the user’s mouth. Its construction and decoration are somewhat clumsy compared with those of other works on view, but this odd piece elegantly sums up the notion that even the most familiar objects resist our desire to fully understand why their makers made them.

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