Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Richard Prince: American Spirituality

And Richard Prince...

Richard Prince: American Spirituality

American Spirituality, Richard Prince’s massive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, carries on like a gibbering, vulgarian soothsayer, joyfully setting loose a legion of inner demons that the American psyche would sooner repress than confront. Gleefully offensive and intellectually compelling in equal measure, the work tackles a slew of complex issues. Class, gender, sexuality, celebrity, and the artist’s quixotic self-absorption violently compete for attention. While flashes of brilliant insight intermittently flourish in Prince’s cultural grotesque, the show’s unwieldy scope fails to coalesce in any meaningful fashion. At some point the relentless barrage of Prince’s critique veers into the realm of self-parody and never finds its way out again.

The basis of Prince’s work is appropriation, his most infamous artistic innovation and weapon of choice for cultural dissection. Beginning in 1977, the artist began rephotographing advertising images and presenting them as fine art, imploding the idea of originality while revealing the cultural mythos imbedded in the original images. Preferring to work in series, Prince pulls back the rock of the American façade and presents, with almost scientific serialization, the subterranean cultural currents that flow beneath.

While the retrospective features numerous series of Prince’s appropriation photography, the most compelling are the Cowboys and Girlfriends. Juxtaposed and intermingled near the middle of the show, both series illuminate embarrassingly complex truths hidden within deceptively simple imagery. The Cowboys, derived from Marlboro cigarette advertisements of the 1980s, scrutinize the myth of the impossibly masculine, resolutely rugged cattleman. Through repositioning such macho symbols as the cowboy, the horse, and the boundless wilderness, Prince explores the male desire for gender identity through masculine potency and confounds Marlboro’s attempt to link virility with an incredibly unhealthy product. Prince explains, “A rephotograph is essentially an appropriation of what’s already real about an existing image and an attempt to add on or additionalize this reality onto something more real, a virtuoso real.”

The Girlfriend series dissembles a similar myth, the motorcycle as a sacristy for the vaunted American notion of individual freedom. The frontier desperado finds his modern-day counterpart in the motorcyclist, represented in the media as ‘One-percenter’ outlaws who renounce social structure for hedonism and transience. While morally problematic for most Americans, the narrative emblematized by the Hell’s Angels reinforces cherished ideals of personal freedom and mobility. The girlfriends, propped awkwardly against this symbol of masculine prerogative, lose their humanity and become extensions of the fabrication. Through enlargement, Prince emphasizes the licentious desperation of the masculine fantasy and the discomforting vulnerability of the female attempt to fulfill it.

The artist elaborates upon this theme in a new series of works that appropriate the Abstract Expressionist milieu of Willem de Kooning’s Women paintings of 1950. Abstract Expressionism itself was an intensely masculine affair, replete with hard drinking, chain smoking, and a vigorous amount of male self-importance. Female artists such as Lee Krasner were celebrated less than their male counterparts. De Kooning’s Women are savage, punishing affairs, the figures barely emerging from the gestural violence as hideous parodies of the female form.

Prince borrows de Kooning’s forms and desecrates them with male and female cutouts from pornographic magazines. The artist co-ops the uniqueness of the Abstract Expressionist gesture, then befouls it with the nadir of low culture imagery. Through a brilliant act of visual contamination, Prince simultaneously draws out the vicious subtext of the earlier works, confounds their stature as high art, and critiques a sexist dynamic that withheld open appreciation for female artists during the 1950s.

Prince elicited a similar art historical interaction with his Monochrome Joke paintings, produced between 1987 and 1989. The formula is simple: take a monochrome canvas and slap a recycled, borscht-belt joke in the center. Recalling the post-minimal aesthetic of Ellsworth Kelly but eschewing Kelly’s lyrically personal forms, Prince’s paintings embody the banality of mass-production. The austere surfaces and the mawkish, hand-me-down humor suggest the hokey knick-knacks you might find at an airport gift shop. Referred to as “antimasterpieces” in the exhibition catalogue, these works casually upset the core values of art and collapse traditional ideas of greatness and historical relevance.

As the 1990s drew to a close, Prince amplified the self-critique of the Joke paintings by increasing their scale and dropping the monochrome canvas. The jokes now float among fields of ethereal, gently shifting pigment or organized grids of expressionist gesture. Stenciled over themselves repeatedly, they produce worn, spectral palimpsests of Prince’s formulaic system. The grid and the stencil, both references to Jasper Johns, are strategies that reveal a procedural repetition and sabotage notions of expressionist epiphany and emotional involvement.

Later Joke paintings use cancelled checks as a backdrop for a more pointed lampoon of unique artistic identity and capitalist greed. The checks, each personalized with Jimmi Hendrix imagery and Prince’s signature, give a record of the artist’s purchases. In an increasingly corporate world that values and defines a person by what he is capable of buying, the checks could be read as a catalogue to Prince’s essential being. The artist slyly allows this consumer mentality to invade his work and reveals its soulless prerogative.

But while all of this is riveting on a work-by-work basis, the exhibition as a whole comes up short in a number of ways. It’s said that Nancy Spector, chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum, worked in close collaboration with Prince while organizing the show. While it’s clear that Spector wants to do justice to the full breadth of Prince’s oeuvre, the finished product could use a few less pieces and many more editorial compromises. There’s simply too much here, organized in too rambling a fashion, for the show to find cohesive footing.

Depending on how you count, there are no less than nine series in the show, each an exuberant rumination on art, society, and any number of other American cultural shibboleths. The exhibition could drop a couple threads – the Cars sculptures and Upstate photographs come immediately to mind – without interfering with its total impact. For a show labeled American Spirituality, it does its best to meet that concept head-on with enough intellectual tenacity, thematic repetition, and ironic grotesquery to send the viewer into metacritical exhaustion. If Prince and Spector had been more careful with their choices, this frustratingly longwinded retrospective could have been more than the grueling sum of its many, many parts.

Richard Prince: American Spirituality
The Guggenheim Museum
September 28, 2007 - January 9, 2008

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