New York

Richard Prince, Michelle Stuart, and William Wiley

Katharine Markel Gallery

Richard Prince, Michelle Stuart and William Wiley employ the book-as-form to very different ends. Wiley uses his leather-encased volume merely as a vehicle for a series of prints. These are interspersed with passages of quasi-poetic autobiographical writing (resonances of Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder) and with selections from the I Ching. The theme of this production, called Suite of Daze, is a period Wiley spent in Chicago designing and executing his prints, and consulting the I Ching daily for clues to how they should look. Consequently, the combinations of straight and broken lines that key the I Ching's “judgments” become part of his works, along with recurrent vague symbolic figures—a skull, bits of scenery and aphorism (i.e. “Form Is Void”), diamonds and trees. Wiley’s drawing style is deliberately crude and reminds one of Jim Dine’s furry hearts and hair-balls. But as Wiley’s pictures are forced to contain much more information than Dine’s, their hairiness often confuses them. It seems that for Wiley, deliberate crudeness and grotesquery are meant to suggest a rustic quality, but this quality emerges more cogently from his broken, slangy written passages, where Rim Rat (Wiley) chases Sir Rot (Seurat?) through an abstruse landscape. What it all adds up to is never really clear, for much of Wiley’s language, both literary and pictorial, is clouded gibberish. His Zen hobo’s persona is created without relation to any recognizable social or natural world, and thus lacks meaning. And while Wiley’s slang has a kind of vulgar warmth to it, it makes the whole piece devolve into a kind of kitschy curiosity. The elaborately bound leather book itself, though beautifully crafted, amounts to little more than ornamentation: Suite of Daze is obscurity in a deluxe edition.

Michelle Stuart’s pieces are the most interesting. She offers a series of eight handmade books, each of which refers to a natural setting or quarry in some part of the United States. The books are made of materials retrieved from these locales, while various objects from the places are also displayed in the works. (The pages of one group of books, Green River, Massachusetts, have been pressed against bits of earth, flowers and grass so that only a sort of paper fossil remains.) The book itself becomes a motif in Stuart’s work (in Wiley’s it is only a frame) as follows: by creating both volume and contents out of the same materials, Stuart makes her subject and its vehicle indistinguishable. One has the sense of a book the natural world has mutely written by itself, of, in a sense, the autobiography of Sayreville Quarry, and nature’s whispery, elusive language turns out to be poignant and nostalgic. Stuart’s work also has its conceptual aspect, i.e. through the correlation between these books and actual, chosen locations, they function as “documents.” But in the end, the books’ plain and powerful imagery is more interesting. The difficulty with Stuart’s work lies precisely in its strength, however. Her books are terribly precious, delicate miniatures that can easily draw more attention to craftsmanship than to content.

Richard Prince’s work makes book into subject just as Stuart’s does, but by very different, and, to my mind, rather flatfooted means. Prince has torn about 120 pages from various published works, some famous, some obscure, crossed out the majority of these pages’ lines, and mounted the pages on the wall in rows. There is probably some logic to Prince’s choices, but the viewer is offered no clues. The best I could spot was a recurrence of passages from Moby Dick. Prince arranges his pages so as to mimic the sequence of parts that appears in most published texts. He begins with eight or ten title pages, goes on to introductions, dedications, notes, epilogues, endpapers, lists of characters and a singular “Roster of the Ship’s Company.” The piece is filled with repetitions that produce a kind of dull wit. For instance, when Prince comes to notes the sequence runs “Author’s Note,” “A Note on the Text,” “A Note of Thanks,” “A Note to the English Teacher,” “Translator’s Note,” “A Note About the Translator,” “A Note to the Reader,” “A Note on Tipping” . . . Conspicuously absent is a sequence of major text, though individual pages of text, including the first page of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, crop up from time to time.

If the book is Richard Prince’s subject, it is a subject of parody, for he has reduced literature to all the less than consequential appendages that cradle most texts. Prince plays his game artlessly though—neither the blank rows of pages nor the artist’s plain job of mounting them have any visual interest. And why exactly he should choose to parody the particular texts he does is unclear since they are mostly obliterated. All literature, conversely, is a pretty broad subject for such a laconic parodist. Meanwhile, Prince’s crossing-out of lines prevents the piece’s being interesting as a collage of found literary objects. Ultimately, all Prince has done is fooled around with books, and his occasional puns and meagerly witty juxtapositions hardly seem worth the effort.

Leo Rubinfien