New York

Richard Prince

Baskerville + Watson

The recognition of a shift in our view of reality from a somatic spatial model to a specular field transmitted via media representation began to take form in the work of certain West Coast-based artists about a decade ago, and since then, through his use of the advertising image, Richard Prince has become its most didactic exponent. Like the majority of advertisements, the Marlboro-cigarette image which is the source of Prince’s recent body of photographs, “Cowboys,” is designed for the casual glance that cruises the street or the pages of a magazine, so that the information is received by scanning rather than by looking into the image. It is no great insight to point out that the visual potency of the Marlboro billboards in particular draws on the formal and temporal codes of the cinema screen and the Western epic. The chain of significations that tie the product to the image of the cowboy in harmony with his horse and nature is anchored in America’s fantasy of individual (male) freedom. Despite Prince’s elimination of the advertisement’s text, it would be disingenuous to claim that his cropped and rephotographed “simulations” strip the image of its references, since the latter is so bound within the fabric of a collective mythology as to effortlessly guarantee an already manufactured meaning for the knowing viewer. The question is whether the artist’s editorial manipulations extend a critique of our relation to the codes of photographic representation that constitute this media fiction or whether they remain complicit with it.

Prince’s somewhat promiscuous acquisition of subject matters suggests that the work’s meaning lies less in the content of his various images than in operational effects that refer to the discourse on authorship and originality—that is, our attention is drawn to production itself rather than to the production of meaning. Within this framework, his images appear as little more than a catalogue of typical media icons whose fetishistic cultural status is their only commonality. The cataloguing process, like collecting, is itself a fetishization, an effect exacerbated in “Cowboys” by the “domesticated” scale of the images and by the problem of their presentation in conventional mounts and frames—the traditional “windows” that invite inspection of their contents but that, when the image is photographic, paradoxically do not bear looking into. That is, the work appears to ignore what the ad and the film image, in their acceptance of the temporality of the scanning glance, acknowledge about the nature of the photograph—namely, that there is a homogeneity to its surface, an absence of depth and materiality (literally a lack of “in formation”) which cannot sustain the gaze. One’s interest is quickly exhausted by the deadliness of a “reality,” a nature morte, whose only lure is that nostalgia for “presence” intrinsic to our relation to the photograph. Thus not only does the work substantiate and estheticize what was ephemeral and throwaway, but it commodifies that which in the ad is its excess, that which makes a fetish of the product: the myth of presence, which always guarantees the identification of the viewing subject. The ambivalence of “Cowboys” is that while they remind us of the emptiness of the photograph they nevertheless remain intact as images both of consumption and for consumption. The discourse on the mythopoetic function of media imagery and its displacement of an external reality has, like Prince’s strategy, become academic. The “disease,” as it were, has been diagnosed; so now what?

Jean Fisher