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Lustrous, radiant and gleaming, Seth Price’s Untitled emanates refinement and a subtle power. Executed in vacuum-formed plastic, the work shows the contours of a bomber jacket encased in a solid expanse of polystyrene, suggesting that this golden idol is concerned with the deities of fashion and luxury. Every wrinkle, pucker and seam in the folds of the once-pliable coat are rendered in painstaking detail, forming a nearly geological surface of mountain ridges, crests and valleys that snake and curve across the work, and the shape of the jacket has been precisely arranged so that its sartorial origins are unmistakable. Combining crisp lines and glittering golden chromatic hues with a surface that is in turns temptingly haptic and sleek, streamlined and smooth, Untitled is a work of incomparable allure and sultriness.
One of the leading artists of the contemporary avant-garde, Seth Price has produced a cutting-edge body of work that excavates, destabilizes and re-presents the mechanics of consumption. Throughout a diverse body of work that includes sculpture, paintings, video and written work, Price questions how the goods we purchase can condition and even define our reality. The artist often appropriates pirated or bootlegged materials, such as music, written texts and other media sourced from the internet, in order to circumvent the traditional sources of appropriation in art. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of Price’s oeuvre is its isolation and examination of the salient aspects of the commercial industry—namely, how goods are made, distributed and assigned value—undertaken in order to hold a mirror up to our consumer culture, and illuminate the often unnoticed operations of desire. Price continues these investigations in the present work, a conceptual tour de force that criticizes commodity fetishization through its use of materials and the culturally loaded icon of the rebel’s bomber jacket.
In Untitled, Price has masterfully manipulated plastic to mimic a revered oil painting, or the medium that for many years has represented the most sacred, celebrated and valued visual art form. Like canvas pulled taught over stretcher bars, the jacket is confined within the bounds of the polystyrene, and the year of the work’s manufacture, 2006, is emblazoned at the bottom and stands in for the artist’s signature and inscription. The reverse of the work shows the impressions where the jacket and the numbers 2006 pushed into the polystyrene, similar to the way the back of a painting reveals important clues to the artist’s technical practices. Untitled, furthermore, is of the size, proportions and scale of a painting, and it is intended to be installed on a wall. Its monochromatic surface recalls the landmark paintings of Yves Klein, Ad Reinhardt and Robert Ryman, while its curled ends suggest the shaped canvases of Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. Yet, as seductive and illustrious as the present work is, the fact that it is made from an undeniably humble and unconventional material—plastic—is inescapable and in fact intrinsic to Price’s sophisticated construction.
A pervasive material in the contemporary world, plastic is found everywhere, in products that include water bottles, shoes, cars, buildings, spacecraft and much more. Plastic is utilitarian and a chief material in commodified objects, and it is largely synthetic, removed from human hands and popular conceptions of what is “natural.” Yet plastic is also incontrovertibly an accepted part of daily life. With its low cost and ease of manufacture, and its ability to take many shapes and forms, plastic is the material of the modern era, and its versatility has led it to surpass in use such conventionally favored materials as wood, stone, metal and glass. Price’s use of vacuum-formed plastic in Untitled, therefore, is of special significance.
Commonly used for product packaging, vacuum-formed plastic is, in the commercial realm, a negligible material and one that is discarded after the newly obtained good has been unwrapped. Rarely do we notice packaging as an object on its own, existing as an item of value independent of the product it encases. In Untitled, however, Price has brilliantly destabilized this typical mode of consumption by isolating and elevating the material to a work of fine art—and a richly luxurious one at that. Untitled not only references the gloried tradition of modernist painting, but it also emulates the appearance of gold, a material of wealth and status.
As illustrated by Price’s skilled handling of materials and formal qualities, Untitled is underpinned by a mature conceptual framework inherited from Marcel Duchamp. Referencing Duchamp’s readymade, Untitled utilizes pre-existing "non-art" objects: the bomber jacket and synthesized plastic. As such, it draws from Duchamp’s conviction that, independent of existing art world aesthetics and conventions, any item can be art. Tapping into this radical iconoclasm, Untitled represents the culmination of the Duchampian strategies of repudiation and subversion, and it signifies the next page in the avant-garde’s history of defying conventional art world dictums.
The issue of commodity fetishization addressed in Untitled was also previously investigated by Conceptual artists Piero Manzoni and Chris Burden, further cementing Price’s place in the lineage of some of the most influential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, Untitled questions the relationship between production and art much like Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit from 1961, in which Manzoni filled 90 tin cans with 30 grams of, ostensibly, shit—a supposition that has never been able to be verified since to open the can would be to destroy the integrity of the work. Drawing from Duchamp’s readymade, both Manzoni’s and Price’s works challenge what it means for an artwork to be made by the “hand of the artist,” a trait that is largely desirable in art since it is assumed to signal the work’s proximity to the artist.
The theme of art’s monetization and the use of gold (or, a gold-like material), also likens Price’s Untitled to Chris Burden’s Tower of Power, a ziggurat of 100 one-kilo gold bars. Burden’s Tower of Power plays on the way artworks, as treasures, are assigned monetary value. Gold is attractive as well as valuable, and Burden’s installation references both the beauty and scarcity of the precious metal as well as its mythic history as a symbol of incorruptibility, immortality and eternal youth. Like Tower of Power, Price’s Untitled leverages the aesthetic and metaphysical allure of gold to question received notions of how value is established and why we are drawn to certain objects as opposed to others.
Polished and elegant with its golden-hued surface, Untitled is undeniably beautiful and incites desire in its audience. Yet while Price initially seems to be tempting us to fetishize and consume this artwork, the artist in fact turns our expectations on their head through a series of adroit formal and conceptual maneuvers. Like so much of Price’s work, Untitled is, at its heart, based on a mutable and interchangeable motif, one that trades in non-specificity. In addition, Price’s use of plastic, a ubiquitous, commercially-based material, further compounds Untitled’s layered opacity as it unites fine art with popular materials and aesthetics. Thus, though we may delight in the luxurious appearance of the present work, Price’s work exposes the underlying mechanics of such desire, underscoring his status as a master of challenging and redefining the framework of contemporary art.