I got in touch with sculptor Tom Price more than fifteen years ago. I was new in London and had just moved in with my ex, Stephen with whom we lived as a blissfully happy Disney-gay couple in a detached house in Hertfordshire where we entertained friends that we didn’t really like. I used to collect contemporary art and was quite obsessional about it. At the point, I didn’t realize that that urge to own had to do with the need to lose what I wasn’t aware I didn’t already own. That is why I fell into alcohol, sex and drug addiction that suburban bourgeois life was replaced by a rather brutal rock bottom which, eventually, taught me more about myself than contemporary art. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am very different from the person who got in touch with Tom Price more than ten years ago. His work, now on show at ‘Now You See Me’ at the National Portrait Gallery of London, however, worryingly remains the same.
Price depicts black men constructed from different sources including observed individuals, ‘types’ represented in the media and body parts and expressions taken from art history. He uses cast bronze and aluminium to create fictional, anonymous heads and sculptures in the tradition of Ancient Roman veristic portraiture.
There is something annoyingly politically correct in his attempt to invite viewers to question the representation of black men in art history and contemporary culture through the deployment of figures of displacement like irony. Besides, it is not true that through art history those excluded were not dignified through art. An example of this is Diego Velazquez’s portratis of his slave/assistant Juan de Pareja. Tom Price ‘s decision to use the plinth and the shape of (official) public sculptures to depict poor black people makes irony his main artistic material, not bronze or aluminium. And he modulates this irony through the size of the portrait/bust/sculpture and that’s it. But is Price a one trick pony or, more specifically, a ‘one irony’ pony?
I am saying this because it is impossible not to compare his sculptures with the Charles Ray’s who Family Romance (1991) or Fall’91 (1992) also challenges the viewer’s notions of size and proportion. The difference between Ray and Price is that while the former is a modernist the latter is a postmodernist. In other wrods, while Ray uses the human form as an opportunity to discuss the issues brought about by modernism and abstraction with Anthony Caro, for example; Price just uses the size as an allegory of ‘social awareness’. Thus, his artistic project entails a series of inversions: ‘black over white’, ‘poor over rich’, ‘small over big’. I would say that, in spite of the visual evidence, his theme is not how to represent black culture but instead how to make a clear anti-racist point through the manipulation of certain visual categories and this is something that institutions love to endorse. To look as if they care without having to get too much into detail. From this point of view, I wonder whether Tom Price is using art to stop discrimation or to perpetuate it. J A T