Last chance to see: Thomas J Price reimagines the role of public sculptures at Hauser & Wirth
As ‘Thoughts Unseen’, the artist’s first show with Hauser & Wirth, opened at the gallery’s Somerset outpost (until 3 January), we talked to Thomas J Price about his whirlwind year and expanding people’s expectations of what a sculptural figure can be
A couple of years ago British artist Thomas J Price decided to represent himself. From the outside this may have seemed a strange decision; his career was humming along. But certain things felt erroneous to him. Most of his shows and recognition was outside the UK and he wanted to scale up both literally and figuratively.
Price’s work appears figurative but is rooted in conceptualism, manifesting in sculpture, performance and film. Most known for monumental figures created from imagination, they stand lost in thought or looking at their phones. All depict people of colour.
Given the nature of his practice, Price was invited by The Art Newspaper to comment on the public debate around monuments to problematic historical figures. Suddenly, an art world he had not felt truly a part of was looking to him for answers. This was followed up by the inevitable blowback, but it also won him the Hackney Windrush commission alongside Veronica Ryan, and he had suddenly become much more visible and in demand.
‘It was quite surreal initially because I think I was so used to the resistance to the works, the complexity of ideas they encapsulate, and so used to dismissal,’ says Price. ‘To suddenly hear people telling me about statues and public monuments and why representation matters was kind of cute, but I make this work because I want people to look up, I want people to engage and to try to understand. So it was a fantastic moment. It was like, right, okay, here we go! People are listening, let’s have this discussion!’
Now represented by art world behemoth Hauser & Wirth, he has his first show with the gallery, ‘Thoughts Unseen’ opening on 1 October in the gallery’s Somerset outpost. Having spent the end of the summer in residency there, he has had a chance to reflect on his practice to date and a whirlwind year.
‘Switching from my very small studio in London to a much larger space in Somerset has allowed me to work simultaneously on different types of work,’ Price explains. ‘To be able to have different types of sculptures out and to have a different space where I can do the digital sculpting component compared to say, the clay sculpting, and to be able to draw, put my drawings up and look at them in order, that’s just been absolutely amazing. I guess it’s allowed me to connect the dots.’
Connecting the dots is exactly what Price needed to do as he faced the challenging task of looking back over his work to date and putting together ‘Thoughts Unseen’, as well as making the new works for the show.
‘Because I’ve got a bit of distance of time, perhaps it’s allowed me to get an overview of the beginning journey into the practice; to see how it developed and to place it into the context of the times.’
In his sculptural works, Price’s subjects are characters, built from past ideas, gestures, stances and of those he has made before. He asks himself questions about where the work will stand and who will interact with it. Interaction is at the core of his work.
‘Where do people expect to see someone like this, where am I going, where am I planning to put it up and what are my ambitions for this character? What are my hopes and dreams for this person?’ he asks himself as he creates a human being from scratch.
By positioning these monumental figures of colour in public spaces, Price raises questions through the audience’s reactions to them. What takes place next is an interaction between the viewers and the sculptures which hold their ground, self-contained, thinking.
‘They’re a portrait of the person looking at them because they bring out our understanding. The character has to give just enough to entice the viewer, but not be so overbearing,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want an audience; I want an engaged participant in this nonverbal discussion.’
Alongside figurative works, ‘Thoughts Unseen’ will include double-channel video work From the Ground Up (2016). The exhibition will put into context Price’s oeuvre ahead of a year that will see the realisation not only of the Windrush Commission but also a commission for Marcus Garvey Park in New York for the Studio Museum in Harlem.
As we emerge from the pandemic and the revolution of ideas in 2020, we are all stepping onto different terrain. Price, and his work, are moving into a space of increased visibility and potential.
‘I’ve always wanted these figures to be able to exist anywhere in the world. One of my first pieces placed outside is in Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It’s still there and it still does amazing things in terms of expanding people’s expectations for where they encounter people, and their idea of what a sculpture of a figure can be.’ §