Breaking With Monuments as Institutional Selfies

LOS ANGELES — In this time of statues coming down, it’s worth asking what statues should be going up. I’ve always thought of public statues as an example of an institutional selfie, the kind of representation that’s only possible with significant funds, labor, and coordination. When a statue goes up, an entire infrastructure is supporting it, both literally and figuratively.

Walking into Thomas J Price: Beyond Measure, on view at Hauser & Wirth through August 20, viewers are directly confronted with an alternative vision of monumentality. The British artist’s bronze sculptures of Black figures occupy space with tremendous energy by towering as high as 12 feet. In “A Place Beyond” (all works 2023), a young femme figure with shoulder-length braids looks up and outward from their phone, while in “Time Unfolding,” a young person wearing jeans and sandals looks down at their phone, neck hunched in that familiar gesture. No phone is present in “Grounded in the Stars,” the tallest work; rather, the figure stands with arms akimbo, their weight shifted to one leg as they gaze toward the gallery entrance.

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The poetic names express a powerful mix of gravitas complementing the figures’ casualness — they look like people we might know or see out in public, rather than generals and political leaders. Their extraordinariness comes through in the sense that we are seeing people in their day-to-day lives, worthy of celebrating and remembering. “The gestures and poses are a rejection of the triumphant ruler,” Price told Los Angeles Times arts writer Carolina Miranda. “Black people spend a lot of time being performative and this is the opposite of that.”

Installation view of Thomas J Price: Beyond Measure at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles; foreground: “At the Same Time” (2023), pink marble; background: “Fixed Point, Moving Object” (2023), pink marble

The works are based on amalgamations of 3D scans of real people — like large language models (LLMs), they are constructions based on reality. And while they occupy the most space, they’re accompanied by pink marble busts of heads, made in Italy. The busts are placed on white plinths, and as I circled each one, I started asking myself why my primary image of busts is based on Western European hair textures and facial features. In the back of the gallery is the first one Price ever exhibited publicly, which can fit in the palm of a hand.

On a tour with students at the gallery, Price discussed the installation of this piece, which rests alone on a shelf on an otherwise empty wall: “It’s a small object on a big wall. You know when things are important, they often get a lot of space.” It’s titled “Mixed Feelings About Bus Drivers,” inspired by the fact that passengers on buses in London can only see drivers’ heads, as they operate the vehicle in a small cab. It’s also a celebration of bus drivers, considered essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown but now largely ignored in much of our public discourse.

In tandem with the show, the gallery is hosting Traces of Us, an education lab that allows students to play with space, light, and scale to explore monumentality and its forms and figures. The works on display come from two groups of students from schools in Los Angeles, and there’s a large chalkboard where people can draw their silhouettes at human scale. 

“The reality is that we’re not all judged the same,” Price noted on his tour. “We don’t all have the same experiences so these works in part challenge those experiences and present an opportunity to be visible, for you to be able to see yourself in these works.”

Installation view of Thomas J Price: Beyond Measure at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles; foreground: “Grounded in the Stars” (2023), bronze
Art by Los Angeles schoolchildren in the Traces of Us educational lab at Hauser & Wirth

Thomas J Price. Beyond Measure continues at Hauser & Wirth (901 East 3rd Street, Arts District, Los Angeles) through August 20. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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