The Extravagant Minimalism of Tom Price
Counterpart is both a sculpture and a bench. And no matter how you look at it, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Designed for a prestigious commission, this iconic work by the British artist Tom Price has since inspired a collection of one-of-a-kind pieces that lie somewhere between art and design.
By Joseph Low
Tom Price has been centring his creative practice around materials since his studies at the prestigious Royal College of Art, which was under the direction of Ron Arad at the time. He works with all kinds of materials, from the most conventional to the totally novel, and brings the passion of a veritable alchemist to his experimentation. “Presence & Absence,” his 2014 solo exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, brought his boldness and virtuosity in this field to public attention. In the exhibition, he presented a series of human figures, cast in coal, in various stages of decomposition. “I started working with coal when I became fascinated with the ash-encrusted body casts of victims of the volcanic eruption in Pompeii. I wanted to create something in response to a phrase I heard about people from Herculaneum (a town closer in proximity to the volcano) being ‘instantly carbonized’ by the intense heat.”
Two works from the series “The Presence of Absence,” exhibited at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City in 2014.
He is also interested in resin, particularly in its interaction with tar: “The two couldn’t be much more opposite in appearance. But when they’re combined, they produce something quite magical.” A commission from Chatsworth House provided the opportunity to combine these experiments to create one piece, which has come to represent his work as a whole.
Chatsworth House, in England, is home to a remarkable art collection amassed by the Dukes of Devonshire over sixteen generations. In 2015, the estate held an exhibition of contemporary seating under the title “Make Yourself Comfortable,” featuring iconic pieces by the likes of Marc Newson, Maarten Baas, and Johnny Swing. Seeking to highlight the most experimental approaches, curator Hannah Obee commissioned works for the occasion from several artists, all inspired by the site’s history and its collections. Tom Price, one of the commissioned artists, recalls that “there was a very simple brief. Basically, come to visit Chatsworth House and find something that in some way will inspire the design and creation of seating.”
Counterpart, by Tom Price. Image: Chatsworth House Trust
He designed two benches with identical measurements: simple blocks with minimalist lines, each 2.2 metres in length. The connection with Chatsworth House lies in the choice of materials. One of the benches is made of coal, referencing the coal mines once owned by the family; the second, made of crystalline light-reflecting resin, pays tribute to the mineral collection started by Duchess Georgiana in the eighteenth century.
The dark, matte surface of coal is in dialogue here with the transparency of resin, which appears to glow thanks to a built-in lighting system. This radiant effect spectacularly showcases the jade, turquoise, and gold hues produced by the unusual pairing of resin and tar.
The work’s title, Counterpart clearly refers to the dialogue created when these two blocks are placed side by side. However, the artist also sees a connection between his work and the beauty of the pedestals on which he has viewed classical statues: “It was also intended as an homage to the humble plinth, which I saw as the counterpart to the sculptures they supported. When viewed in isolation, the blocks take on the role of protagonist and demand attention, but as soon as they are sat on, they become functional and assume a supporting role to the person who is sitting on them.”
Counterpart provides an ideal illustration of Tom Price’s artistic approach, which can be likened to that of a scientist who experiments, observes, and makes research progress by learning from his failures. Each piece is also a testament to his unique ability to design works that captivate the viewer with the simplicity of their line, their minimalistic elegance, and their hybrid nature as artworks and functional pieces, depending on the way spectators choose to interact with them.
Counterpart has since inspired a limited series of functional sculptures, all of which are available through the Artistics online contemporary art gallery.