Sculpting Identity: Thomas J. Price

Sculpting Identity: Thomas J. Price

Thomas J. Price has made a name for himself over the last decade as one of London’s most exciting artists. We visited the artist at his studio to talk about his work.

Thomas J. Price has made a name for himself over the last decade as one of London’s most exciting artists. A graduate of both the Chelsea College of Art and the Royal College of Art, Thomas’s work spans installation, stop-motion and, most famously, sculpture. We visited Thomas at his studio to talk about his work.


 

Drake's: You first gained recognition for your performance piece, Licked, where you tried to lick every surface in the gallery you were exhibiting in. That's fairly different to the sculptural work you're now know for. What made you decide to pursue sculpture so heavily as a medium?

TJP: When I created Licked, I was, amongst other things, interested in testing the notion of an invisible portrait communicated via the unconscious mind on a chemical level. I wanted to see if my presence - or essence - could be detected by those who entered the space after I had licked the walls. As it turned out, the subsequent bleeding of my tongue transformed the sense of the work completely and it became a very visual record of my presence in that space and the physical outlay of the activity.

At the same time as that performance work I was also making stop-frame animations of plasticine heads, which would simply emerge from a black background and start to look out into the room and occasionally blink or shift gaze past the viewer. Again, these were about communication on an unconscious level, this time trying to recreate the experience of a memory via one of the most emotive communication tools ever created: the human form. I had experimented with many different physiognomies which I kept on record as plaster casts, and it was during a tutorial when I was at the Royal College of Art that the artist Denise de Cordova encouraged me to accept the potential of these ‘experiments’ as works in their own right. I've always been interested in classical studies and once I started looking into the history and power of sculpture, and its social implications, I knew it was an area rich in conceptual potential and that I would be setting out on a long journey.

Drake's: You're best known for your bronze sculptures of 'everyday' black men. I'm interested to know why you focus heavily on both black men, and men specifically, as your subjects?

TJP: Essentially it's because I feel that the current (and historic) western representation of black  or non-white men is almost completely contra to that of what has become to a large extent the de facto representation of the human race, white men, even if sometimes on an almost imperceptible level. Monumental sculpture throughout history has almost entirely been populated by images of white men, usually of a particular social standing. It has been used to exemplify power, greatness, triumph, and many other 'aspirational' qualities that powerful individuals and nations want to project for all to see. The very nature of object based sculpture makes it occupy space and create a dynamic of scale between the object and the viewer, which has the effect of creating a 'hierarchy of status' dependent on the relative sizes between the two. In placing black men at the center of my work, and therefore the viewers' attention, I'm firstly presenting the underrepresented in a way that subverts the norm. Secondly, in doing so, I'm drawing attention to various long-held beliefs, and the mechanisms behind them, which normally go unquestioned.

I want to critique the presiding image of power, success and achievement, which has seeped into the social unconsciousness, reinforced by a myriad of subtle (and not so subtle) assertions of status and value that are directed at us via media outlets, films, literature, historical accounts, music, and so on. My work challenges the values and authenticity of the traditional monumental sculpture, replacing the subject with a type of person seldom presented as' monumental’.


 

Drake's: Your sculptures are decidedly contemporary in their subject matter, but your chosen material - bronze - is very classical. Could you tell us about what drew you to bring these two elements together in your work?

TJP: Bronze holds a very particular and enduring significance in the world. As a scrap metal, its copper content gives it some value, but more than that it's physical properties as an alloy have maintained its position as an incredibly successful “technology” for making sculpture for thousands of years. It tends to be expensive to work with and therefore has become associated with aggrandizing those deemed fit enough for such investment, or those wealthy enough to bankroll works themselves. Although my bronzes are also semi-disguised as the kind of injection molded plastic used in mobile phones and other devices, I wanted to take this historically rich substance, with all its connotations, and use it to portray my characters; setting the prestige of the material against the perception of the subjects.

The first ‘figurative’ sculpture I showed was a small plaster head on a scrap MDF shelf, which was attached by one screw to a wall, quite low-down between two large pillars. Of course, this was about presenting the opposite of what was being referenced, with plaster taking the place of marble.

Drake's: Many of your pieces, such as Network (2013), which is currently on display as part of The Line sculpture walk in East London, seem to glorify the mundanity of life. What appeals to you about the everyday-ness of your subjects?

TJP: Much of my work exists in the discord of perception from individual to individual, as well as within the same person from moment to moment. For me it's about finding the universal characteristics within us all. There are certain activities and traits nearly everyone shares and by highlighting these it's possible to also explore the differences between us that bring nuance to our existence. Something as simple as looking at what appears to be a mobile phone can be perceived completely differently depending on who's holding it and who's viewing that 'scene'.


Drake's: Some of your recent work has revolved around busts created on a massive size - why craft on such a large scale?

TJP: The scale of an object can have such a powerful effect on our psyches. When I first started making the ‘undersized' heads, which are densely packed with detail, encouraging the viewer closer into their space, whilst maintaining their gaze beyond the viewer, it was about communicating their self-contained confidence and lack of concern for approval or recognition. Whilst the larger heads are a further statement upon the relationship between subject matter and viewer, the small heads can be considered 'intimate', with the larger heads - more than three times life size - speak more of the public realm where their size projects them into social spaces, making a more direct comparison to contemporary and ancient monumental sculpture; speaking more overtly about a type of adulation, or worship.

Drake's: Are you able to talk about what your current work is looking to explore?

TJP: I can't say too much at this point as we haven't yet put out the press release, but if you visit the show at Hales Gallery in March you will see that the work is moving further into the effects that scale and material have on the viewer's interpretation of particular physiognomies.

I've broadened my historical reference material and have been looking at ancient Egyptian sculpture. It's led to a slight increase in the size of the large heads, which for the first time, will be cast in a truly contemporary material, aluminium. The aluminium will be paired with a very classic marble to accentuate the qualities of each.

I'm also looking forward to showing my first 'live action' video piece that explores the notions of ritual and objects as attributes of character.


Drake's:     Thanks for your time Thomas.

Thomas's new exhibition, 'Worship', can be seen at the Hales Gallery from April 1st.

www.thomasjprice.com