PRINT May 2000


Commissioned on the occasion of “Departures: 11 Artists at the Getty” to realize a work responding to the museum’s collection, STEPHEN PRINA fixed on an early, seemingly uncharacteristic, Georges de la Tour. The result: twenty-one-and-a-half minutes of interlaced references, from seventeenth-century devotional painting to Andy Warhol’s 1965 film Vinyl. Writer and critic TOM HOLERT unpacks the latest installment in Prina’s examination of cultural expectations.

THE OPENING IMAGE OF the twenty-one-minute thirty-second, 16 mm film shows a section of a pale, naked male torso. Hands lie crossed one over the other on the chest; to the left a candle burns. A long time passes before slowly, very slowly, the image begins to change. Meanwhile, a single note is heard, played in unison on string instruments and completed by a French horn. The pitch begins to sink, then rise, as the instruments produce a dissonant oscillation. Motion controlled, the camera pulls back from the naked body, which, it becomes increasingly clear, is in fact a painted representation. One of the musicians’ bows glides into the frame. The painting is of Christ, decked in a crown of thorns, who is approached by a man holding the candle that illuminates Christ’s body. Gradually, the four female members of a string quartet come into view. To the right, near the painting, stands an African-American museum guard in a dark suit. The instruments arrive at a resolving f7 chord, and one of the violinists plays a cadence leading from the opening figure into the composition. The melody is taken over by the French horn, which remains, however, outside the frame. The composition is played for three minutes until it leads back into the cadence—this time with the notes played in reverse sequence. The camera moves sideways through the space, which becomes little by little identifiable as a gallery in a museum. The horn player (to this point unseen), several steeply rising microphone stands with bright green foam mikes, and more paintings can be discerned, as well as the entry to an adjoining wing of the building. The musicians bring the chord back into dissonance, and the camera stops in front of a dark surface. A unison note is reached. A subtle cut follows.

The camera slowly rides a dolly into another gallery space, apparently adjacent to the first. Another museum guard, dressed in a wine-red jacket, gazes into the camera as it passes by. The string quartet, together with the French-horn player, is set up in front of a wall on which three paintings of varying sizes hang. In the middle of this tableau, behind the musicians, a music stand has been placed before a wooden box. A man in red coveralls steps onto the platform, switches on the music-stand light, and begins to sing a three-minute song to the French horn’s melody. He then sits down beside the music stand and crosses his legs. Once again, one hears the cadence and the decomposed f7 chord. The camera swivels to the left, allowing the gaze to glide across two as yet unseen walls, and after executing a 180-degree turn comes to rest on a painting of five closely joined figures in a friezelike arrangement; in the center of the work—it now fills the filmic frame entirely—a bearded flute player is trying to spray the juice of a lemon into the eyes of an equally bearded hurdy-gurdy player; three attendant figures look out into the beholder’s space. The shot is accompanied by the notes of the strings and French horn flowing in and out of each other—an oscillating score by this time familiar.

Then follow extensive end titles. The text is in transparent lettering; behind the titles, in the style of big-budget pictures, stylishly crafted flames are seen—apparently the work of Hollywood professionals. There is the title of the film, Vinyl II; a dedication; the names of those who participated; precise details about the two paintings as well as the singer’s clothes. Finally we read: “Script, Score and Direction” are by Stephen Prina.

INVITED TO PARTICIPATE IN “Departures: 11 Artists at the Getty,” a group exhibition curated by Lisa Lyons featuring projects based on the institution’s collection, Los Angeles–based artist Stephen Prina discovered that the J. Paul Getty Museum owns a Georges de La Tour—The Musicians’ Brawl, ca. 1625–27, a relatively early work by the painter from the Lorraine. When Prina first investigated the painting, he found himself disappointed. The Musicians’ Brawl lacked all the characteristics one typically associates with La Tour. Like others, he connected the name with the pop La Tour of devout religious night images and their curiously abstracted figures—an association that resulted from the concerted efforts of early-twentieth-century dealers and connoisseurs to boost the prestige and value of the excavated old master. Prina’s mother owned a print of a candlelit scene in the artist’s typically Caravaggesque chiaroscuro manner (a Saint Anne with the Christ Child, perhaps, or a Repentant Magdalene with a Document?). Back in Galesburg, Illinois, where he grew up, the young Prina painted a copy of his mother’s La Tour, which in retrospect has taken on for him the peculiar, “anecdotal” significance of an initiation into art.

That the Getty La Tour lacks the pronounced chiaroscuro and the motif of pious contemplation—and therefore lacks almost everything La Touresque—might, though, have been entirely to Prina’s taste. A student of Douglas Huebler, John Baldessari, and Michael Asher, Prina much prefers the appellation “cultural producer” to “artist,” valuing the special force and clumsiness of the term—a term that lends itself to the problematization of cultural expectations and the ideological maneuvers involved in fulfilling them. What is expected? By whom and why? What is the nature of the disappointment that results from the mismatch between a name and an image, a signature and a style? And what does it look like when Prina makes such a disappointment productive?

The Musicians’ Brawl doesn’t put in an appearance in Vinyl II, the centerpiece of the installation of the same name, until the waning minutes, just before the end titles. Nonetheless, Prina’s disappointment-made-productive has been staged all along through the peculiar absence-presence of La Tour, the missing La Tour of childhood and cultural memory. In a neighboring gallery at the Getty, Prina found a representative of the La Tour effect: From its dramatic lighting effects to its Christian motif, Christ Crowned with Thorns, ca. 1620, by the Flemish Caravaggist Gerrit van Honthorst, corresponded much more closely to Prina’s original expectations. So the film takes as its point of departure a substitute and finishes with the atypical though “authentic” La Tour, onto which Prina appears to transfer the thematic and discursive control of the project. Even if Prina is not a typical art historian–artist—the kind whose marketing strategy is to provide prestigious iconographic citations to a hermeneutic industry of learned paraphrasing (think Jeff Wall)—The Musicians’ Brawl seems, for various reasons, to lend itself well to the transformation into matrix and material that is at the heart of his specific “postconceptual” practice of reconstruction.

For what does the painting represent? Obviously a brawl between street musicians, in which the flute player attempts to prove that the hurdy-gurdy man—the evocation of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (“Thrown like a star in my vast sleep/I’m opening my eyes to take a peep”) is no doubt a serendipitous allusion for Prina—is not blind as he pretends to be. In fact, in the image the latter does appear to blink; the acid assault doesn’t fail. But to what extent is the hurdy-gurdy man transformed by this test of deception, and what kind of deception is it exactly? Who is the perpetrator and who the victim? How does the sadism of the unmasking relate to the crime of feigned blindness?

The blindness of hurdy-gurdy players was a component of a street convention around 1600, and the figures in the painting react specifically to the test of this convention. All in all, The Musicians’ Brawl shows a raw burlesque scene. The subtlety of the work lies in the notable monumentality of the coarse figures, in their agony. There is no moral victor in this dispute, only blind competition, fear, and malicious delight. If the question here is a brutal test of the credibility of a disability turned into a sign of legitimacy, the struggle for discursive control over the spectrum of reference operates as the secret theme of Vinyl II: the question of and about what this work treats and the way in which the of and about relate to each other. In what (hierarchical) relation do the announced themes organize themselves?

There is, for example, the title’s plain reference to Andy Warhol’s Vinyl, 1965—the first film version of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, with Gerard Malanga in the role of Alex. (The fantastically slow camera movements in Prina’s film are reminiscent, in turn, of the more famous adaptation of the 1962 novel and its director, Stanley Kubrick.) Warhol’s film, a study of masculinity, violence, and sexuality, wavers between frenetic agitation and torpid poses, between the obtuse fixity of purpose of the stoned actors and liberating comedy. As if he were writing about La Tour’s Brawl, Stephen Koch describes Vinyl in Stargazer: The Life, World, and Films of Andy Warhol: “For all its fistfights, arm-twisting, groveling, whining, sneering, for all its he-men pilloried and tortured, Vinyl is silly with a look of farcical cornball amateurism.”

With Vinyl II, the sexual subtexts of Prina’s previous projects become even more explicit, from the filmic rendering of Christ’s body in the van Honthorst to the remarkably static struggle of the two street musicians in the La Tour. Here, various conventions for the representation of gay male interaction are present—perhaps precisely those representations that since have run to more or less glamorous, more or less reactionary clichés.

And what about the music, the score, Prina’s entrance as singer? From the casting of the musicians—affectless, nonprofessional actors that resemble Bresson’s “models”—to the composition of the multipart, rigidly symmetrical piece of music, the two middle sections of which sound like unwritten songs by the Beatles, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, even Schumann, everything seems extraordinarily decisive. Prina, who always chooses the clothing for his performances with care, wears red coveralls designed by the artist J. Morgan Puett in 1994 as a contribution to Mitchell Kane’s Hirsch Farm Project. In the summer of 1995, Prina himself spent a week at this art-based think tank: The coveralls indirectly refer to the existence of the project; beyond that, he used Puett’s designs in the 1995 performance/installation Excerpts for a “Ballett-Saal” at the Ursula Blickle Foundation in Kraichtal, Germany.

Since the early ’80s, when Prina established the repertoire of his practice with complex installations such as Aristotle-Plato-Socrates, 1982, and performances like An Evening of 19th and 20th Century Piano Music, 1983–85, his projects have characteristically developed in a double movement: inward to the immanence of the network of reference (or references) internal to the work and outward to the transcendence of a constantly ramifying structure of external references. Pieces such as The No. 1 Single from Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart for the Week Ending January 23, 1988 (Aristotle-Plato-Socrates, 1982), 1988, and The Top 13 Singles from Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart for the Week Ending September 11, 1993 (Aristotle-Plato-Socrates, 1982), 1993, were already connected in multiple ways to earlier projects, had absorbed the history of previous versions, were the carriers of a knowledge whose origin and occasion could be reconstructed at any time, but only through a considerable conspiratorial effort on behalf of the interpreter. In the projects of the ’90s, particularly Dom-Hotel, Room 101, Cologne/Dom-Hotel Zimmer 101, Köln, 1994, the “Retrospection Under Duress” series, 1996–97, and the various Push Comes to Love exhibitions, 1999, Prina deepened his exploration of intertextual relations while persistently taking up new interests and subjects and intensifying the tension between historical charge and spatial arrangement.

Since joining Mayo Thompson’s musicians’ and artists’ collective, the Red Krayola, in which he has played with Albert Oehlen, David Grubbs, Tom Watson, John McEntire, and Jim O’Rourke, among others, Prina the studied musician has been known to the interested public alongside Prina the visual artist. In 1999 his solo CD Push Comes to Love was released on the Chicago label Drag City; the CD is filled with lightly hovering, sweet pop songs predominantly composed by Prina with lyrics by Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, David Grubbs, Mayo Thompson, and Lynne Tillman. Prina wanted to confront the requirements of the pop industry, not to flee its professional standards into the artist’s corner; the result is a re-examination of a pristine pop situation, set between the soundscapes of Joni Mitchell and Gastr del Sol, a cultural oasis filled with the sound of a high-pitched male voice.

Everything feels sleek and transparent, yet the audiences for Prina’s exhibitions and performances are often overwhelmed at the same time by the intricate set of audiovisual data and cultural references, lost in the demanding maze of details and the necessity of step-by-step paraphrase that comes with it. Everything seems interconnected and significant, and even though this observation might sound trivial—after all, such omnisignificance is by definition the fate of every artwork—it takes on special pertinence when it comes to Prina, because he commits himself to the analysis of the very desire for precious cultural information and the ideological comforts of being surrounded by the immaterial gadgets of symbolic capital.

Still, the problem remains: How do “we” find our way in the zone of “his” musical interests, which run from Schoenberg to the Sex Pistols, from John Cage to Morrissey? How do we orient ourselves in the field of cinephilia, between Jean-Luc Godard and Keanu Reeves, Yvonne Rainer and Fight Club? And how do we cope with Prina’s brand of Germanophilia, which embraces Theodor Adorno, Heinrich Böll, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder? Must one educate oneself as an archaeologist of the avant-garde, a pop polymath, a hobbyist cultural historian to be able to follow Prina’s path?

Despite all the generosity connected to the preparation of cultural materials and the shaping of his proposals—both the keys he provides to his work and the openness of interpretration he appears to offer the audience—Stephen Prina does bind the imagination. He compels specific observations and readings. The deferral to which every act of reception is condemned takes on suspicious aspects in Prina’s work. As with the descriptive sketch of Vinyl II handed out at the opening of this essay—that is, a retrospective stock-taking, a maximally unambiguous inventory, a painstaking and time-consuming compilation of facts—the inventory operates as a set of premises forming the basis of any engagement with Prina’s work, even if the artist himself would energetically dispute this.

On the other hand, for all their hygienic precision and obsessive transparency, Prina’s works are hyperfragile, existing under extreme pressure, constantly generating mistakes and misunderstandings. Thus, he creates, as he puts it, “objects which outdistance my capacity to control them.” Hence the persistent efforts at exactitude and the engagement with the methodical recognition of the arbitrariness of every choice. The conditioning of artistic decisions is tested without their arbitrariness being thrown into doubt.

Prina’s practice is less a form of institutional critique than of interinstitutionality. But the entanglement with institutional spaces like the Getty Museum is not a conflict-free encounter for Prina. Even when it may appear that way, his notion of a productive “collaboration” never presents what is in fact the systematic brutality of competitive struggles as harmless, never dissolves them into a vision of beauty and social contracts and communicative rationality. Rather, the concept that underlies his practice carries such struggles against bureaucratic and institutional instrumentality over into the soundless brawl, the mute argument, the raw struggle for sovereignty beyond surveillance.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.