Tom Price does what he wants and lets other people worry about categories.
The London-based artist/designer’s website, www.tom-price.com, is dominated by images of the “Meltdown” chairs that are his best-known works to date.
Several are in museum collections, including at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has a version created from polyvinyl chloride tubing. (See a Q&A with Price in Sunday’s House + Home section.)
Catherine Futter, the museum’s senior curator of architecture, design and decorative arts, is a fan of the chairs and has been following Price’s work for several years.
During a trip to London in spring 2011, Futter made a point of visiting Price’s studio, where he was winding down from the chairs and experimenting with sculpture, including elaborate installations featuring tree forms created by melting polypropylene pipe.
Futter was so impressed by Price’s new ideas that she offered him a show, his first solo exhibit in the U.S. She embraces his position as an art-design boundary creature — perhaps the most radical aspect of what he does.
“I gave up trying to make a distinction” between art and design, Price said during an interview in his exhibit in the Bloch Building Project Space.
He studied both in school at the Royal College of Art in London.
“I’m better known in the design world, but my work is on the border. My primary interest is in the material.”
Futter has turned the decorative arts cases in the Bloch Building over to Price’s recent experiments with coal and resin, the foundation of his sobering and uplifting exhibition of new sculptures at the Nelson.
“Presence & Absence: New Works by Tom Price” presents a post-apocalyptic vision of six dazed and tattered life-size figures positioned at various points in the darkened gallery.
At the center, two glimmering columns of resin inject a note of promise; completing the installation are three low, faceted geometric sculptures.
The geometric sculptures and the figures are made of coal dust mixed with a binder. In the figures, the corroded coal “skin” has an eggshell fragility. In the geometric pieces, Price has combined blocky coal forms with bronze, aluminum and plastic. “Carbon Void Blue” incorporates an alluring inset of translucent blue.
“Coal is carbon in purest form,” Price said. “I liked the idea of using carbon as a fundamental building part of life and what we return to afterward, and all the other issues it brings with it — its usefulness and problems and the paradox presented by its ability to both sustain life and threaten life.”
Coal’s contribution to our warming planet is an underlying theme. Price also related his use of coal to the U.K. miners’ strike in 1980s, which ended poorly for the miners, pushing many into poverty and unemployment.
The apocalypse that seems to have produced these frozen figures may well have been brought on by global warming, a concern often pitted against the ongoing need for jobs.
Price’s turn to the figure is not as far removed from his chairs as it might seem.
“Furniture is about the human form,” he said. “Chairs (present) the absence of the human form.”
A major inspiration for “Presence & Absence” was a visit to the “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” exhibition at the British Museum in 2013.
There, Price saw life casts of some of the bodies that were “instantly carbonized” when they were buried by lava following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The casts got him thinking, he said, about “mold-making and present and absent form.”
To create the figures for “Presence & Absence,” Price made molds from live models.
“I interviewed different people,” he said, “until I arrived at a pair that would work together. I chose the girl for her sense of fragility, and I liked the physique of the male. Both are dancers and use their bodies.”
Positioned singly and in pairs, the figures appear oblivious to one another and their surroundings. An exception is one female figure who looks out toward an adjacent gallery, as if seeking the saving and restorative power of art.
Hinting at futuristic cities or hoards of treasure, the resin pillars, with their fractured and fissured crystalline interiors, function as monuments to future possibilities. They also speak to the important role of chance — a key factor in their creation — which has so frequently played a role in lifesaving discoveries.
A video included in the exhibit documents how the pillars were made by pouring layers of resin into a box mold lined with silicon. The addition of a catalyst to the liquid resin causes it to heat up, creating those striking cracks and fissures.
Usually, said Price’s assistant Oliver Ashworth-Martin, “polyester resin is hardened by adding a 1 to 2 percent ratio of catalyst.” But the process Price is using goes way beyond that, Ashworth-Martin said, sometimes as high as 15 to 20 percent. In addition to adding catalyst, Price also adds tar to the resin, which injects dramatic threadings of black into the glimmering mix.
He drops it in there and sees what it does: “I use chance as a tool as a means of going beyond the limits of my imagination,” Price said.
With their seat-like indentations, two of the coal polyhedrons have the aspect of chairs, perhaps indicating a future direction for his experiments with coal, but also serving as markers of resistance to being re-categorized as a fine artist.
“I want to escape the sense of being an artist,” Price said. “I start with the material and go where the material wants to go.”
To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to email@example.com.
“Presence & Absence: New Works by Tom Price” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through Jan. 4, 2015. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission is free. For more information, call 816-751-1278 or visit www.nelson-atkins.org.