Clement Price-Thomas is a British artist based in New York.
There are times when the biography of an artist is anything but incidental, shaping the course of his or her life’s work with an almost prophetic determination. British-born Clement Price-Thomas is one such artist. The son and grandson of two prominent male surgeons, Price-Thomas grew up in a kind of mental operating theater, studying anatomy under the tutelage of his father, pouring over sketches of surgical instruments drawn and devised by his grandfather, exploring drawers stuffed with medical tools, etc. In such a world, the budding artist understood at an early age that not only could life could turn on a dime, and therein lied its preciousness, but conversely that nature and the human body held “infinite power and invention.” This dual awareness has permeated his thinking ever since, defining a quasi-scientific relationship to art in which experimentation, metamorphosis, cycles of decay and growth, became both metaphors and method.
Indeed, Price-Thomas is something of an alchemist at heart. His sculptures and paintings intentionally alter and activate the inherent properties of organic materials like salt, blood, air, mold, plants, bone, and water through the intervention of technology – transformers, explosives, generators, pumps, motors, etc. From the beginning, his earliest works were studies in this interdependence, blurring the line between man-made and natural environments, as in his 1991 project in which he created artificial coral in the Bahamas by harnessing solar energy to grow calcium over wire mesh. Later works including Heart Studies, 2001-05, and Blood of an Englishman, 2008, similarly merge the synthetic and the biological, each through the primary use of salt. The former consists of anatomically shaped hearts made of neon tubes and plastic whose surfaces are slowly overgrown with crystalline structures of salt generated by electricity. The latter, a series of abstract paintings, whose Rorschach-like forms derive from a mixture of human blood and salt, also has a visible life span that changes over time, their color and texture deepening as oxygen, air, and light condition their rate of degeneration.
Of course, Price-Thomas is an artist, not a scientist or a surgeon, and many of his works are phenomenological at root, exploring our perception of consciousness – the state of being alive – through an intuitive engagement with environment. Serpentine Project, 2005, for example, is sited outdoors in a landscape alternately urban and pastoral; the river Serpentine, a 28-acre recreational lake in Hyde Park, London. In it, large-scale circles appear and disappear on the surface of the water, in patterns whose visibility are determined by weather and light as well as the viewer’s position. Whilst You Were Sleeping, 2007, by contrast, takes the laboratory out onto the streets of NYC, featuring a 95-foot high stream of water activated by a high pressure electrical pump attached to an open fire hydrant. Seen anywhere from up close to a 10-block radius, viewer responses to the strange, inexplicable phenomenon, which Price-Thomas collected and recorded, ranged from pleasure to disinterest and fear. So too, The Guide, 2008-09, a sculpture whose external form resembles nothing more than a forgettable pile of leaves until it ever so slowly reveals its breathing. Rising and falling with the soft, rhythmic pace of a resting heartbeat – an illusion made real through the creation of an artificial breathing rig – The Guide has been installed in parks and on pavement, by trees and alongside garbage. Like all that water coursing underground in our cities, it reminds us of the power of unseen forces, disrupting the viewer’s sense of the ordinary. And as with all of Price-Thomas’ works, we are reminded that life heightens awareness of the life force that courses through all of us.