Saturday, 18 January 2014

Art: Interview with Tom Price at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

He's notorious for licking a gallery wall till his tongue bled. Now, artist Tom Price creates sculptures of everyday black men that are deliberately unheroic. Jon Cronshaw meets him.

In 2001, Tom Price tried to cover an entire gallery with his saliva over a three-day period. But in the first hour, his tongue began to bleed profusely.

What was intended as invisible marks of spit on a gallery wall became something like an abattoir, steadily covered with the artist's blood.

"It wasn't pleasant," says Price, "but it was almost a relief when I started to make a mark so I could see where I'd been. Then it really became like a painting."

He certainly made a name for himself with the performance piece, called Licked, all while he was still a student at Chelsea College of Art. "People thought I'd used a paintbrush – people thought I'd faked it.

"After that, I started dreaming up other performances. I really got into demonstrations of sacrifice, I guess," he says.

"But then I realised I was seeking some weird approval, like an actor or performer needs applause. And I didn't want that – I wanted to say things people weren't going to applaud at all," he says.

So he turned to sculpture, teaching himself how to work with traditional methods. "Today, I try to take a less gimmicky approach, if I'm honest. And I've got such respect for sculpture. But in the contemporary art world, it is sort of sniffed at," he says.

Price's recent work, now on show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, has seen him make bronzes of a group seldom represented in art galleries: disenfranchised, urban young black men.

"I started sculpting people near where I lived in Brixton, who happened to be black," says Price. "I showed one to my peers at art school and their reaction was strange – I couldn't put my finger on it, but I knew I was tapping into something powerful. Maybe they thought it looked a bit like me, which seemed melancholic and vulnerable."

For Price, it's important to ask questions about why black men are only represented in certain ways within art. "There's a real lack of first-hand representation or self-representation of a black man in a neutral state – if that can exist – something like them not being heroic, not being a type, not being recorded as some sort of ethnicity," he says.

He wants his work to provide food for thought for the casual observer. "It's like they're saying 'I'm here and I don't care if you are'. The sculptures never meet your gaze, they don't have their shoulders back – they stand like they don't want to be seen."

Each one is a mishmash. They are not portraits of individuals but, rather like Dr Frankenstein, Price pieces different elements together to create what he calls psychological portraits – both in terms of his subject matter and himself.

"When you start to project ideas and emotions on to a work of art, it can't help but be a bit of a self-portrait," he says. "I resisted that idea for a long time.

"But who's the one continual reference? What's the one continual thing? That's me, so I'm definitely in them. I'm owning up to that a bit more now," he says.

His goal is "to show the inner worlds of contemporary people through ancient sculpture". So while traditionalists can appreciate the classical and technical skill involved, those with more contemporary tastes can contemplate the pressing questions they raise about race, class and identity.

"There's a lot of social commentary going on," he says, "but I try and do it in a way that's beautiful – to sugar the pill, as it were."

Where is Modern Art Now - Tom Price clip from on Vimeo.

Tom Price's work is on display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until April 27.


This article was originally published by The Guardian on January 15, 2014.

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