PRACTICING FICTION: KEN PRICE AND "HAPPY'S CURIOUS"

Ken Price, the subject of a recent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is celebrated for his organic sculptural forms and richly colored surfaces.  This talk, however, focuses on his 1978 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled Happy’s Curios. The installation, the culmination of a six-year effort, included over a dozen shrines, displays, and cabinets. Each unit contained a series of “anonymous” ceramic pieces mimicking Mexican folk pottery.“  Price’s willful appropriation of the tourist souvenir, along with his radical submergence of his own avant-garde persona (he had been a member of the prominent Ferus Gallery and a participant in the so-called “finish fetish” movement in Los Angeles), continue to challenge and confound artists and critics.

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Happy’s Curios has been described as a “masterpiece,” an "homage,” even a “failure.” The borderland vocabulary of Price’s objects with their stereotypic “Indian” quotations set on banal forms spoke the cheap language of the curio shop and enlisted the low rhetoric of the souvenir. Happy’s Curios, shown upstairs from the country’s first blockbuster show, The Treasures of Tutankhamen, offered a richly layered reading of the souvenir and a timely critique of the contemporary commodification of art. Its domestic forms--shelves filled with cups and mugs, pitchers and plates--were and remain remarkably subversive to the museum’s interest in presenting the rare and unusual.

Price’s conceptual exploration of the souvenir and his interrogation of consumption extended contemporary commentary on the object.  A decade before Price’s exhibition opened to the public, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard offered an ambitious effort to classify the ever-increasing proliferation of objects.  In his 1968 book, Les system des objets,  Baudrillard connects everyday objects with our cultural ideology, our social projections and our emotional appetite for the accumulation of goods.  This paper will explore Price’s installation and its intersections with Baudrillard’s project to order and affix meaning to inanimate objects