The Raw & The Cooked: Seth Price’s Uncanny Valley

At Sadie Coles HQ in London, American conceptual artist Seth Price makes canvases that teeter between the virtual and the real

Installation view, Seth Price, Art Is Not Human, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 13 April-28 May 2022. Credit: © Seth Price, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo: Robert Glowacki

There deserves to be a history of the artistic exploitation of cringe. Its canon could include Bruce Nauman painting his own balls and Jeff Koons’ portraits of himself and then-partner Ilona Staller (aka former adult film star turned politician and Eurotrash regular, Cicciolina). The hyper-real, hyperactive, and hyper-garish films of Ryan Trecartin and Rachel Maclean. Whole swathes of performance art. Anything by NFT millionaire, Beeple. In fact, the whole concept of Beeple. In each case, the instinctive crease of your brow and your wince of discomfort are – as they say – all part of the work. In such a history, Seth Price’s work here at Sadie Coles HQ would represent an apotheosis of sorts. I suspect at least somewhat wittingly, even ironically. But then post-00s, being witting and ironic about your own cringe is itself kind of cringe, right?

Here we have acid house smileys like something out of Banksy’s Dismaland; streaky palm prints in bright dripping paint; lurid fluoro-green on black UV prints like the sleeve of some nu metal CD or a really bad video game; fake wood veneers… Sorry to be that guy but my wife and I have been thinking about getting our kitchen ‘done’ lately so I’ve become quite the connoisseur of the fake wood veneer. The worst thing about Price’s fake wood veneers is that they appear to be fake fake wood.

You see a work like Wrekfeld (2022) with its field of pencil erasers bursting through a flat wooden plane like so many wormholes in the alpha quadrant and immediately you think: fake wood. This is not wood but an image of wood. I’m immediately transported back to the Magnet showroom and Karen from sales is explaining to me the difference between their Ludlow and Integra ranges. But then you see it from the side and you look at the press release and you find out it really is wood (birch plywood, naturally – another very millennial-aesthetic kitchen material that now appears to be a few notches beyond my paygrade).

I’m still not sure if Price has painted or printed a digital image of wood grain onto an actual wooden surface. But then that undecidability between the real and its digital approximation has been at the heart of Price’s work for decades now.

Installation view, Seth Price, Art Is Not Human, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 13 April-28 May 2022. Credit: © Seth Price, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo: Robert Glowacki

Back in 2002, Price earned himself a place in the post-internet hall of fame with a twelve-page illustrated essay entitled Dispersion. He spoke of the potential for “new life” in Marcel Duchamp’s hope for a dissolution of art into life thanks to “the material and discursive technologies of distributed media.” The piece proceeds as a critique of the old model of public art of the sort ‘statue in the town square’, arguing that, “Publicness today has as much to do with sites of production and reproduction as it does with any supposed physical commons, so a popular album

or website could be regarded as a more successful instance of public art than a monument tucked away in an urban plaza.” The examples he chose to illustrate his point included Linux, Ubu web, and – somewhat provocatively – the widely distributed beheading video of kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl.

At the time, Price’s work involved splicing together Jpegs of paintings by old masters sourced on Google Image Search and taking photos of sliced bread in such detailed close-up it looked like the surface of the moon. In the years since, Price has produced numerous albums and numerous websites and also engaged in a few further provocations: an auto-fiction-type novel about the venality of the art world; a website profiling – and featuring photos of the private homes of – several thousand of the world’s richest art collectors; an unsuccessful attempt to remove every trace of himself and his work from the internet. “At the core of cringe,” writes Amor Cringe author K. Allado-McDowell in a recent Twitter thread, “is the empty subject.” For Price, the emptying out of his own subjecthood seems to have been a persistent aspiration.

Price’s present show finds him turning to painting – of a sort. The production process behind the wall-based works in the gallery involves first sploshing and smearing acrylic paints across a surface then photographing the results in high definition and importing it into a digital image manipulation program (the same one, incidentally, used by Beeple) and adding further levels of – now simulated, virtual – imagery before printing that back onto the original surface. So in works like Gold PamphID (2022) and My Hand is Already Dead (2021), we find actual handmade gestural swirls and smears butting up against and intermingling with their algorithmic approximations. Sometimes a look up close will reveal the distinction between the two, the suture point between the simulation and the simulated, but sometimes it won’t.

Installation view, Seth Price, Art Is Not Human, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 13 April-28 May 2022. Credit: © Seth Price, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo: Robert Glowacki

Several times, walking round the show, I’m reminded of the artwork for releases on the PC Music label: that simultaneity of trash and gloss, the childish and the hyper-sophisticated. Like the music of AG Cook, Danny L. Harle, Hannah Diamond, and so on, it’s not always clear whether this is a highly sophisticated take on something essentially juvenile – something, perhaps, that cunningly exposes the covert juvenility of all sorts of other stuff. Or whether it’s more like a juvenile take on something that could be highly sophisticated. Maybe it’s both at once. Maybe the undecidability is the point.

“It’s a big theme in my own work,” Price said in an interview last year with Michelle Kuo for MoMA magazine, “the tension between material life and dematerialized life.” Today, that tension between the real and its simulacrum is as likely to play itself out in a kitchen showroom as an art gallery. To a significant degree, where we live shapes who we are. The subject is formed by its habitat. If my ongoing attempt to do something about our rotting Ikea kitchen cabinets is anything to go by, the contemporary habitat is now slipping inexorably into some pixellated corner of the metaverse. Price’s work inhabits this world and tries more than most to register its vicissitudes. If that 3D rendering software that Karen from Magnet used to show us what our kitchen would look like were able to doodle absentmindedly while making telephone calls, maybe it would look something like this. Either way, it looks expensive.

Seth Price, Art Is Not Human, is at Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 28 May

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