richard prince

Model Emily Ratajkowski Blasted Richard Prince for Stealing Her Image. Now, She’s Taking It Back—and Selling It as an NFT


Supermodel and art-world regular Emily Ratajkowski is following in the footsteps of Kate Moss, Paris Hilton, and other celebrities by getting into the NFT game.

But unlike the others, Ratajkowski has a specific purpose: to reclaim authority over her image.

Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution, as Ratajkowski’s NFT is called, will hit the auction block at Christie’s on May 14 in a contemporary art day sale.

Ratajkowski made the work following her September 2020 article in the Cut, in which she detailed her quest to “buy back” her likeness, which has been used by everyone from paparazzi to Richard Prince.

The image being sold is a composite of the model in her New York apartment standing in front of the Richard Prince Instagram painting that hangs in her Los Angeles home.

In both images, Ratajkowski pouts at the camera, holding one hand up to her face.

“As somebody who has built a career off of sharing my image, so many times—even though that’s my livelihood—it’s taken from me and then somebody else profits off of it,” she told the New York Times.

The work will be sold via NFT platform OpenSea. There is no reserve or opening bid listed.

Ratajkowski first came upon Prince’s work at Gagosian in New York, where it was part of a show of blown-up images from Prince’s social media feed, printed on canvas.

Installation view of Richard Prince's exhibition "Portraits" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Photo courtesy of MOCAD.

Installation view of Richard Prince’s exhibition “Portraits” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Photo courtesy of MOCAD.

When she asked to buy the work, Ratajkowski found it had already been bought by a gallery employee. Ratajkowski then bought another Prince Instagram “painting” of her, splitting the cost with her boyfriend.

For the model, who studied art at the University of California, the idea that she had to pay for a picture of herself that was taken from Instagram was absurd, as she wrote in the Cut article.

Instagram “up until then had felt like the only place where I could control how I present myself to the world, a shrine to my autonomy.

The model also wrote that one “copyright troll” was suing her for $150,000 in damages after she posted a paparazzi picture of herself to her personal Instagram. Ratajkowski was dismayed to learn that “despite being the unwilling subject of the photograph, I could not control what happened to it.”

Ratajkowski is part of a wave of celebrities who have jumped into the NFT fray. Earlier this month, musician the Weeknd released an NFT that netted more than $2 million.

“Blockchain is democratizing an industry that has historically been kept shut by the gatekeepers,” he said in a statement published by Techcrunch.

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How a Brazen Hack of That $69 Million Beeple Revealed the True Vulnerability of the NFT Market (and Other Insights)


Every Wednesday morning, Midnight Publishing Group News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, clawing down another art-tech rabbit hole…

 

MINT CONDITION

In the opening days of April, an artist operating under the pseudonym Monsieur Personne (“Mr. Nobody”) tried to short-circuit the NFT hype machine by unleashing “sleepminting,” a process that complicates, if not corrodes, one of the value propositions underlying non-fungible tokens. His actions raise thorny questions about everything from coding, to copyright law, to consumer harm. Most importantly, though, they indicate that the market for crypto-collectibles may be scaling up faster than the technological foundation can support.

Debuted as part of an ongoing project titled NFTheft, sleepminting serves as a benevolent but alarming crypto-counterfeiting exercise. It aims to show that an artist can be made to unconsciously assert authorship on the Ethereum blockchain just as surely as a sleepwalking disorder can compel someone to waltz out of their bedroom while in a deep doze.

Remember, to “mint” an NFT means to register a particular user as its creator and initial owner. Theoretically, this becomes the first link in a verified, unbreakable chain of custody tethered to an NFT for the life of the underlying blockchain network. Thanks to this perfectly complete, perfectly secure, and eternally checkable data record, the argument goes, potential buyers can trust non-fungible tokens without necessarily having to trust their owners or sellers. These traits add a valuable layer of security that traditional artworks could never rival with their eternally dubious off-chain certificates of authenticity and provenance documents.

Personne may have found a way to dynamite this argument for much of the art NFT market. Sleepminting enables him to mint NFTs for, and to, the crypto wallets of other artists, then transfer ownership back to himself without their consent or knowing participation. Nevertheless, each of these transactions appears as legitimate on the blockchain record as if the unwitting artist had initiated them on their own, opening up the prospect of sophisticated fraud on a mass scale.

To prove his point, on April Fool’s Day, Personne sleepminted a supposed “second edition” of Beeple’s record-smashing Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, the digital work and accompanying token that sold for a vertigo-inducing $69.3 million via Christie’s less than a month earlier. (My emails to Beeple and his publicist about the situation went unanswered.)

In our ensuing email exchange, Personne claimed he then gifted the sleepminted Beeple (Token ID 40914, for the real crypto-heads) to a user with the suspiciously appropriate handle Arsène Lupin, an homage to the famous “gentleman thief” created by Maurice Leblanc and recently reincarnated in a hit Netflix show. (Personne denied he was Lupin to the blog Nifty News.) Lupin then turned around and offered the sleepminted Beeple for sale on Rarible and Opensea, two of the largest NFT marketplaces—both of which eventually deactivated the listings. (Neither Rarible nor Opensea replied to my emails seeking comment.)

Why publicize any of this, you ask? Personne essentially sees himself as a so-called white hat hacker, meaning an ethics-driven coder who exploits technological flaws strictly to demonstrate how they can be fixed. He is a staunch believer in the potential of NFTs and crypto. However, he believes major “security issues and vulnerabilities” in smart contracts have been glossed over to make way for the gold rush. He also claimed to have launched the NFTheft project only after the crypto-community largely ignored or derided his attempts to spark earnest conversation.

The goal I want to achieve with this is to take the most expensive and historic NFT, and show that if it is not protected, how can we guarantee that any NFT is safe from intentional malice, fraud, forgeries, theft, etc.?” he wrote.

Although the sleepminting saga is hairier than a Haight-Ashbury commune, I think we can chop through the overgrowth using two questions with serious stakes for different participants in the NFT market. 

Screen grab of the NFTheft website showing details of the "sleepminted" token.

Screen grab of the NFTheft website showing details of the “sleepminted” token.

1. What does sleepminting tell us about the technological vulnerabilities of art-related NFTs?

 

Short Answer

The main smart contract driving the market might not be smart enough to secure the frenzied level of buying and selling we’ve seen in 2021.

 

Longer Answer

What’s clear is that Personne is exploiting a flaw in the standard ERC721 smart contract, which is used by the overwhelming majority of art-related NFTs transacting on the Ethereum blockchain. But it is not an easy-to-see flaw, and the effect is not being faked by Photoshop wizardry or some other non-crypto chicanery; the sleepminted Beeple really is minted in Beeple’s wallet, it really is transferred elsewhere afterwardand both of those transactions are memorialized forever on the blockchain. 

How, exactly, is Personne doing this at the level of code? He declined to elaborate, saying only that he would publicly reveal the details before initiating the next stage of the NFTheft project. Other crypto-fluent folks I talked to needed more time to investigate than my deadline would allow. But Personne revealed in one tweet that he had deployed a “custom-built” contract that did not have an unnamed ERC721 “security check in place,” allowing him to move the token from wallet to wallet without meeting the typical conditions (for instance, a buyer sending funds to meet a set sales price).

Good luck identifying the flaw, though. Kevin McCoy, the creator of the first NFT, tried running Personne’s sleepminting smart contract through a decompiler to get more insight into the source code. His highly technical, highly candid snap take on the results was that they were “fucking crazy” with “all kinds of shit going on,” but he could not decipher the actual function responsible for the mischief.

What McCoy could detect was that Personne’s customization was substantially larger and more expensive to deploy than a typical ERC721. The sleepminting contract consists of around 4,000 lines of code and cost 1.04 ETH, or about $2,500, in gas fees—roughly 12.5 times as much as it would usually cost to mint an average ERC721 token, if not more. (“Gas fees” are the term of art for the expenses charged to conduct a transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, with the price changing based on the network’s available computational resources.)

A courtroom sketch of Domenico De Sole on the witness stand with the fake Rothko painting he bought from Knoedler gallery. His case, which was separate from the one that jus settled, was the only one to go to trial. Photo: Elizabeth Williams, courtesy Illustrated Courtroom.

A courtroom sketch of Domenico De Sole on the witness stand with the fake Rothko painting he bought from Knoedler gallery. Photo: Elizabeth Williams, courtesy Illustrated Courtroom.

Why It Matters

Sleepminting is likely more sophisticated than the average NFT buyer’s understanding of the technology, making those buyers unlikely to question what appears to be blockchain-verified authorship.

This is especially important because we’re in a market frenzy for NFTs right now. Thorough vetting falls by the wayside whenever under-informed buyers flood into a largely unregulated space. Fraudsters have made millions in the past selling fake Jackson Pollocks on eBay, and the Knoedler forgery scandal proved that even knowledgeable collectors can be susceptible to high-level chicanery.  

I can’t rule out that a savvy crypto-collector might be able to detect a giveaway in either a sleepminting contract or its data trail. It’s also true that, even without Personne publicizing what he’d done, market players could use off-chain research to find out whether Beeple actually minted a second edition of Everydays—just as, say, Warhol collectors could consult the catalogue raisonné to make sure a particular Marilyn canvas is regarded as authentic.

Still, if bad actors began exploiting vulnerabilities in ERC721 contracts, it could theoretically plunge the NFT market into a forgery crisis on par with the antiquities market, where recent research showed that up to 80 percent of what is offered online is likely either looted or fake. 

Incidentally, Personne alleges that 80 percent of the NFTs on the market are “invalid and need to be redone” because of their vulnerability to sleepminting. That’s a difficult estimate to corroborate. But even if he’s overshooting by two or three times, the financial exposure would swell to millions of dollars in art-related NFTs alone. Isn’t that a prospect worth investigating?

A courtroom setup awaiting a witness. Photo: Friso Gentsch/dpa (Photo by Friso Gentsch/picture alliance via Getty Images)

A courtroom setup awaiting a witness. Photo: Friso Gentsch/dpa (Photo by Friso Gentsch/picture alliance via Getty Images)

2. Does sleepminting violate any U.S. laws? 

 

Short Answer

The legal exposures are murky and hard to act on, but they exist. In a way, that’s the point.

 

Longer Answer

At present, NFTs still occupy a legal gray zone. As of my writing, multiple cases pending in the U.S. could influence their ultimate classification. What’s unclear is how much immunity a sleepminter would have based on the lingering ambiguity.

Personne told me that, after being “thoroughly consulted and advised by personal lawyers and specialist law firms,” he is confident there are “little to no legal repercussions for sleepminting.” His argument is that ERC721 smart contracts only contain a link pointing to a JSON (Javascript Object Notation) file, which in turn points to a “publicly available and hosted digital asset file”here, Beeple’s Everydays image. (Remember, the NFT is almost never the artwork itself.)

He likened the idea of suing him to the “absurd” prospect of Apple suing “every single pedestrian for viewing or photographing their billboard in Times Square.” 

But multiple prominent art attorneys I spoke to felt Personne is standing on shakier legal ground. “If the hacker is not trying to pass the sleepminted work off as authentic and charging money for it, then he is probably not in any danger of being charged with criminal fraud,” said Steven Schindler. “If he were to be misrepresenting the nature of the NFT, and selling the works under false pretenses, then he would certainly be open to charges of fraud.”

But fraud isn’t the only issue at play here. Let’s return to Personne’s contention that the token merely points to a publicly viewable digital file. Querying the blockchain seems to show that the original Everydays NFT and Personne’s sleepminted “second edition” have two different URIs—essentially, the alphanumeric code identifying the actual image file that the token grants ownership to. This implies he downloaded the original file and re-uploaded it to a different online location. 

Further, it looks like he did so without making any changes to the work that could be positioned as “transformative,” like, say, Richard Prince cropping out the Marlboro ad copy in his Cowboys” photographs, or adding nonsensical comments to other people’s Instagram selfies in his New Portraits” series. (Two copyright infringement cases on the latter are currently pending in the Southern District of New York.)

Richard Prince. Photo: Patrick McMullan

So even though the sleepminted token is not the artwork, it still needs to point to the artwork in order to mean anything. If Personne made this happen by reuploading an unaltered digital copy of Beeple’s Everydays, as the URI suggests, then that could very well still qualify as unauthorized reproduction of an artwork whose copyright Beeple still owns.

In short, it’s possible a court could find him liable to be “in violation of Beeple’s exclusive right to publicly display his work,” according to Megan Noh, co-chair of art law at Pryor Cashman.

Personne may also be running afoul of what’s known as the Lanham Act, specifically a clause known as “false designation of origin.” Remember, the entire point of sleepminting is that its unauthorized attribution to Beeple appears legitimate on the blockchain. These claims are reasserted in the details of the sleepminted token on the NFTheft website (“Creator: Beeple (b. 1981)”) as well as the listings on Rarible and Opensea. 

The ‘statements’ on the website and/or created by the intentionally-manipulated metadata feel a lot like ‘false designations of origin,’ which could give rise to liability,” Noh said. “But there’s also an interesting question about whether an NFT can be considered a ‘good or service,’ which it would need to be for this area of the law to apply.”

Screen grab of the Rarible listing for the sleepminted token, showing the current owner as Arsene Lupin and the creator as Beeple.

Screen grab of the Rarible listing for the sleepminted token, showing the current owner as Arsene Lupin and the creator as Beeple.

Why It Matters

Personne’s copious public proclamations that the sleepminted NFT was not, in fact, authorized by Beeple may not protect him in a U.S. court—precisely because he engineered the blockchain to say otherwise. If a sleepminted token truly made it out “in the wild,” as Personne told me it did, then his exposure could only increase as the token moved through the secondary market to buyers who may be less aware of the NFTheft site, his social media presence, and any other links back to his white-hat rhetoric. 

That said, anyone who wanted to sue Personne would likely first have to untangle his identity, since it’s not easy to bring a pseudonymous party to court. Again, good luck.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons it still seems unlikely to me that Lupin, the pseudonymous owner of the sleepminted NFT, is anyone other than the same person behind… uh, Personne. The best way to protect yourself from misunderstandings by subsequent owners is to ensure there are never actually any subsequent owners. 

Debating the legality of this particular episode misses the larger point, though. 

The NFTheft project aims to show that a gigantic proportion of the art NFT market is vulnerable to such malicious intent because of a structural flaw in the standard smart contract. If Personne were a bad actor, he could have sleepminted a much less famous NFT, kept quiet about his custom smart contract, and started selling directly to the most naive buyers he could find. That real people could be tricked into losing real money, and that anyone undertaking the ruse could plausibly be found liable for damages, reinforce why Personne’s gambit is worth our attention. 

We have already seen sophisticated hacks siphon tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars out of cryptocurrency exchanges, decentralized financial entities, and blockchain-based “smart” organizations. Maybe it was only a matter of time before someone figured out a way to do the same to the part of the NFT marketplace that relies on ERC721 contracts. The question is whether the biggest and most influential players will take action before the black hats dig in.

[NFTheft]

 

That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember what Upton Sinclar said: It is difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.

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‘People Often Get Hung Up on the Search for Meaning’: Artist Seth Price on Why People Don’t Get His Work

Seth Price is not an artist—or at least, he’s hesitant to adopt that title. It makes sense. The term “artist,” free though we think it is, actually refers to a very specific type of maker, one who often carves out a niche in an accepted medium. This doesn’t apply to Price. For one, he doesn’t operate within one form and instead bounces between mixed-media art, writing, music, and other arenas. For another, much of his work is about confronting these and other stingy art world conventions.

Price’s new show at Petzel Gallery, “Hell Has Everything,” is his first at the gallery in six years. In the center is a ceiling-mounted video, Social Synth (2017), that rolls through stitched-together images captured by a robotic camera scanning the skin of a squid. Nearby, a couple of fabric lightboxes­ depict a glitchy, unrecognizable patch of skin captured in a similar fashion. Meanwhile, in the back room, a row of mixed media panels—made from various combinations of printer ink, acrylic polymer, paint, plastic, glue, wood, and metal—come together in a corner. They depict what look like real, yet unidentifiable objects—like instruments from a foreign science.

These works are a long way from what Price advocated in “Dispersion,” his seminal essay about dematerializing art that first made Price a rising star in the early 2000s. Since then, he’s mounted shows all over the world and published dozens of books. He produced a fashion show for dOCUMENTA (13); launched a yearlong research project, The Seth Price Institute, at CCA Wattis in San Francisco; and was the subject of an ambitious mid-career retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (it also traveled to the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London).

In 2016, Price published his first novel, “Fuck Seth Price.” Drolly dubbed a memoir, the story is told from the perspective of a mature artist who goes on a murderous spree whilst musing on the role of the art market and his own career.

“For better or for worse, everyone was in agreement that the market was the only indicator that mattered now,” the unnamed narrator states early on in the book, adding: “It was no longer necessary to deem a piece interesting, provocative, weird, or complex, and it was almost incomprehensible to hate something because you liked it, or like it because it unsettled you, or any of the other ambivalent and twisted ways that people wrestled with the intersection of feelings and aesthetics. You almost didn’t need words anymore: it was enough to say, ‘That painting is awesome,’ just as you’d say, ‘This spaghetti is awesome.’”

Ironically, when it comes to his own artwork, Price takes a similar stance, opting to let his material experiments speak for themselves. As such, his work can be hard to come to terms with. He’s having trouble coming to terms with it too. In fact, a certain ineffability is a prerequisite for a work leaving Price’s studio.

Sitting in a light-filled room above the Petzel gallery, Price spoke with Midnight Publishing Group News about the importance of ambiguity, why artists should not have to defend their work, and why he’s more interested in materiality than ever before.

Seth Price, Hell Has Everything (2018). Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.

In the past, you’ve said that sometimes it can take several months or even years for you to appreciate the full value of your works and what they’re about. Is that the case with the works in this show?

Definitely.

What if, in five years, you realize it’s all terrible?

That happens. I’m not writing this stuff off yet, but there have been shows where I felt like, “What the hell was I doing? What a bad idea.”

How does that way of thinking inform your decision-making in the studio?

I try not to think about it too much. There’s a case to be made for art production as a way of not thinking.

That’s surprising to hear. Being familiar with your writing, I would have thought you would bring a more methodical, intellectualized approach to the studio.

Yeah, that approach is one of the things you can play with when the medium is language, or forms of writing. The problem is that writing travels a hundred times faster than material artwork, and it speaks a lot louder. If you write as an artist, it seems to offer a way for people to read all your other work, whether or not that even makes sense. People get the idea that there’s got to be some explanation for this sculpture, if they could just parse it.

Seth Price, We’re going to need a smaller map (2018). Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.

So you’re in the studio and you have an idea for a piece. How do you turn that into a reality without over-intellectualizing it?

Well, I almost never have an idea for a piece. It’s usually more like a feeling or an image, and then I’m interested in different materials and processes, and experimenting with them, pushing them to see what happens. It’s pretty micro, it’s not macro. If I’m lucky, ideas kind of accrete during the process. Art can take those moments where the needle skips and make something interesting.

There are several instances of that in this particular show.

It’s basically all that.

I reread “Dispersion” recently. While that essay is still very salient, it struck me how distant it feels from your work now. Much of “Dispersion” was about the idea of dematerializing art; this show, like many of your shows in the last several years, is more about materiality and tactility and a one-on-one engagement with objects whose power comes from the unique conditions of their production. 

That essay served a function of helping me move my focus from dematerialized work—video, writing, music—into materiality. It was a way of testing that for myself. Within a year of finishing the essay I was working on the calendar paintings, and the next year I was making vacuum forms and having my first solo show. The essay kind of precipitated that.

How much of those ideas laid out in “Dispersion” are still present in your thinking?

They’re present, but I can’t even read that thing. The last time I tried was years ago, and I couldn’t get through a word of it. It was like picking up an alien object. But that’s often the case with artists and older work. And people shouldn’t have to defend their own work.

Installation view, “Hell Has Everything,” 2018. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.

That makes sense—it was written some 16 years ago now. A lot of time has passed since then.

Media was different, culture was different. We’re still figuring out what happened to art in those first years of the century; no one knows yet. I look back at my works from then—”Dispersion,” and the pieces that made up my first show at Reena Spaulings—and they were made in the context of a particularly warlike culture. I suppose it’s like that now, but in a different way. There was a whiplash in going from the nineties and the turn of the century right into 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq. It was also before social media, which changed everything.

Social media is one of the reasons that “Dispersion” is still so relevant and complex for me today. It was prescient in that sense, foregrounding as it did the power of sharing.

You could say it was prescient, but the wave of social media crashes over so much of that early internet discourse and makes it totally obsolete. Right now it’s humiliating to even have to say the phrase “the Internet.” I think it’s because social media finished digging the grave and putting the last bits of dirt on the Internet.

Several of the works in this exhibition—such as Social Synth (2017) and both untitled lightboxes—were created with 3D modeling and map-making software. What is it about those tools that interests you? 

I hesitate to get too far into thinking about the tech, because it was a means to an end. It’s too easy to spin off into musings about the implications of data-mining and Google maps. The 3D modeling software, too: it’s just been about making these photographic images.

You consider them to be photographic?

I consider them to be as much in dialogue with photography as with painting or printmaking or collage. I think people who aren’t so familiar with CGI don’t even know they’re looking at an invented object. Again, I didn’t want it to be work that was about tools. It was more about, “How can we create something where you don’t know what the content of the image is, and you don’t know how it was made?”

Seth Price, Untitled (2015–18). Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.

What about the embroidered “New York City” at the bottom of the lightboxes? I’m not sure what do with that.

[Laughs] It started as a material exploration. I’ve been making these lightboxes for a few years now, and they’re printed on fabric, but that was never clear—people thought they were plastic. That is, historically, what lightboxes are made of; the fabric is just a newer way of making them. But it made me think, “What can I do with the fabric that’s specific to fabric? I can embroider it.”

I was also thinking about fashion and clothing. Words are really important in fashion right now. There was a time when they weren’t; there was a no-logo moment, but now we’re way into language, from couture down to streetwear and knock-offs. There’s tourist merch I see every day that says “New York City,” but you also might see a Balenciaga shirt that says “Paris.” I wanted to play with that, and really brand the artworks. After I did it, I realized it was kind of the same impulse I had when I would put the production dates on the calendar paintings and the vacuum forms. There’s something interesting about the naked fact of production. “New York City” makes a certain sense because that’s where the pieces are made, so it’s a way of putting real information into the work. But even as it gives you that, it takes it away, because it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do with that information.

I imagine there’s a real tendency for viewers to approach these works through thinking about how they were made, to enter them through the lens of technology or materials. Why is it that you’re resistant to that?

I’ve never wanted labor and processes to be visible, and I don’t like works that need a lot of explanation. Ideally the piece would be its own little world, even if you’re not sure what it is, or how you feel about it. On the other hand, I’m aware that people often attach a lot of explanation to my work. I think that happens sometimes when a work produces an ambiguous feeling: people generate discourse to try to make sense of the feeling. Maybe not in the case of abstract painting, where it’s understood that you can bathe in uncertainty and a balance between knowing and not knowing. But as soon as you step into other kinds of work, and especially when the work takes up media and culture, people reach for discourse.

The M.O. of painting is one that we’re familiar with; we’re comfortable with its irresolvability. Is that what attracted you to experiment with the medium?

One of the things that made me interested in stepping into that domain was that I wanted these works to be taken for what they were within the frame. That’s something that painting grants you. I don’t really consider them paintings, but I understand why they’re referred to that way.

It took me a while to understand the attraction of painting. When I was working my way through some of that stuff that became “Dispersion,” I wasn’t interested in painting at all. Becoming friends with painters changed all that. I feel like it’s easy to have a conversation about the things I’m interested in with painters. It cuts through all the bullshit. At this point it’s a lot harder for me to talk to, say, somebody who’s interested in the more discursive side of art production. That’s something I’m interested in, in a general sense, but when it comes to my own work, people often get hung up on the search for meaning.

That’s surprising to hear. From my perspective, the discursive side of art is one you’re very much in conversation with.

Well, what is that even, the “discursive side of art”? I mean, I love it, and I hate it. For a lot of people there’s a “good” politics, where there’s only one job, which is to expose ideology. I often think my works are pretty dumb, but in a way that interests me.

Seth Price, Social Synth (2017). Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.

What do you mean? 

A vacuum-formed jacket, or a calendar as a painting, a crumpled piece of mylar, the handbag soft-sculptures made out of Kevlar. There’s a dumbness to those forms. They’re about material, and about inhabiting different feelings, and realms of production, and experimentation. I’m happy with the kind of discourse they might produce, but sometimes it can be enough to say, “This thing is weird.”

Weirdness seems like a dubious achievement for an artwork, no? Playing devil’s advocate, I might say that anyone can make art weird.

I don’t think it’s that easy. If that were true, we’d be living in an amazing, liberated world where everyone could be as freaky as they want. But maybe you and I have different definitions of weird.

I’ve noticed that people often talk about your work with a sense of hesitation or even suspicion, as if they weren’t sure of the machinations the artist may or may not have on his audience. This reminds me of people like Bruce Nauman or Richard Prince—two very different artists, sure, but both inspire similar reactions from viewers. It’s like the audience is afraid to be made the butt of some joke. Have you found this to be the case too?

I have. I think it happens when the work is using cultural or social material, and as a viewer you know it must be somehow personal, but at the same time, the artist insists on distance. It makes it hard to know what the stakes are. That’s a kind of power, and if you think about the three artists we’re talking about, it’s much easier for a straight white man to claim that social material, and take some distance, and have the work be allowed to keep its ambiguity. You can risk suspicion of your whole project, like you said, and come out the other side and get taken ultra-seriously. So, whatever else the work is doing, there are times when it probably has a kind of sovereignty, and you feel that as a viewer. I think that’s part of the reaction you’re talking about.

Do you worry that it comes at the expense of the viewer’s appreciation? How do you ride that line?

Art comes out of weird, contradictory forces. I make art for myself, and there’s a small group of people—mostly other artists—that I hope I’m in dialogue with. At the same time, without an audience, it’s annihilated. But I can’t let myself go there, because what people think about the work is potentially so important that if I worry about it, I’ll get too distracted to do anything. I need a degree of distance to maintain focus. Sometimes that distance is just a story you tell yourself, but stories are useful, too. It goes deep quickly, doesn’t it? Maybe I should get back to you after ten years of therapy. Honestly, I’m just grateful that a lot of other people appreciate what I do.

Seth Price, Untitled (2018). Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.

Hell Has Everything” is on view at Petzel Gallery through January 5, 2018.

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