Learning lessons from past masters

What Next (Angell Road) 2011 by Tom Price

What Next (Angell Road) 2011 by Tom Price

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Edgy young artist Tom Price’s latest exhibition shows he is now also at ease with traditional sculpture. Jon Cronshaw spoke to him.

Artist Tom Price captured the imagination of the London art world while still a student at Chelsea College of Art with his performance Licked in 2001.

It saw the artist attempt to cover an entire gallery with his saliva over a three day period, but within the first hour his tongue began to bleed profusely. What was intended to be invisible marks of saliva on a gallery wall became something resembling the walls of an abattoir as it became covered in the artist’s blood.

“After this I started dreaming up other performances because I really got into these demonstrations of sacrifice, I guess,” says Price.

“I realised though that I was seeking some weird approval, like an actor or performer needs applause. I didn’t want that – I wanted to say things that people weren’t going to applaud at all,” he says. “Today I try to take a less gimmicky approach.”

And so the artist turned to sculpture, teaching himself how to work with traditional methods which saw him gain a new-found respect for the artists of the past.

Price’s recent work has seen him creating life-sized bronze statues of a group seldom represented or seen in an art gallery: disenfranchised black male youths of the urban underclass, now on show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

“The sculptural tradition is starting to mean more and more to me,” he says. “As you learn more about the process of making sculpture, you get more of an appreciation for it – in the contemporary art world it is sort of sniffed at really,” he says.

“I’ve got such respect for it and that’s why it’s almost overwhelming to be located near works by artists like Henry Moore at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – it’s a little bit daunting but exciting.”

“I started sculpting people from near where I lived in Brixton who happened to be black,” says Price. “I showed one of them to my peers at art school and the reaction was strange – I couldn’t place my finger on it, but I knew at the time that I was tapping into something quite powerful – I had to respond to that.”

For Price it is important to ask questions about why black men are only represented in certain ways within art and he hopes that his work will provide food for thought to the casual observer. “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. “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.”

Price creates sculptures which are a mishmash of different people. They are not portraits of individuals, but rather like Dr Frankenstein, the artist pieces the different elements together to create what he calls a psychological portrait – both in terms of his subject matter and himself.

“I try to capture an emotion, a feeling of intensity, an attitude,” says Price. “When you start to project ideas and emotions onto a work of art, it can’t help but be a bit of a self-portrait – I resisted that idea for quite a long time. I always try to work from an emotional framework in all my sculptures, and who’s the one continual reference? What’s the one continual thing? Well, I guess it’s me, so I’m definitely in them, and I’m sort of owning up to that a bit more,” he says.

Tom Price’s work will be on display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until April 27.

Portrait of the artist

Tom Price, 32, lives and works in London.

He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with first class honours from Chelsea College of Art in 2004. He received his Master of Fine Art degree from the Royal College of Art, London, in 2006.

In 2008 he was the overall winner of the Beck’s Canvas competition which saw his work being featured on 12 million bottles of Beck’s beer.

In 2009 he featured in the BBC4 documentary Where is Modern Art Now? and was featured in the 2010 BBC4 documentary How to Get A Head in Sculpture.

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