New York

Richard Prince

Baskerville + Watson

Richard Prince’s work, broadly described, is a deviant breed, something of a cross between Robert Heinecken and Erving Goffman. Its sexuality, however, is more equivocal and complex but less unabashed than the former, while its sociopsychology is less systematic but more subversive than the latter. By this crude rendering we do not mean to ignore Prince’s debt to deconstructive theory. Indeed, one cannot get very far with the work unless its relation to such thought is understood.

The exhibition consisted of an unbalanced mix of pieces from three series: “The Entertainers,” “Gangs,” and the to us less interesting “Portraits.” Their common identity, as it were, is portraiture—but portraying what? This question may in itself comprise the proper content of the work; and, since each series is distinct in presentation and source material, the question must modulate to meet these differences.

Dominating the exhibition were “The Entertainers,” 1982–84. All are horizontal images of predominantly young, predominantly female faces set against abstract grounds of electric color. Each is named—“Laoura,” “Tamara,” “Plastique”—as if it were an idol of desire; the desire to be other, to possess the other by an act of willful looking.

In rephotographing the publicity photos that are the sources for the faces of “The Entertainers.” Prince has manipulated the images more extensively than is usual for him by cropping, deleting, adding color, and altering focus. It is a kind of dalliance with the remaking process, a labor of adorning the fetish object. Prince’s writings suggest that the images he selects are transformed for him by this task of reclamation into dehiscent forms which open to release fictions of the “real.” For us, however, the immobilized images seem to retreat from his imagination’s aggressions; they recede toward the horizon of facelessness and namelessness. Which is not to say they are any less affective in their gaze; they are not intimate with us, they are distant, and yet they still leave us with the sticky fingers of desire.

The four “Entertainers” here are mounted on 8-foot-high glossy black panels that lean vertically against the wall with a suggestion of temporariness, prelude (to being hung), or false expectation (the works are not where they “should” be). They impose on the space of the gallery problematically: do they represent commodification or do they commodify the artwork; do they recuperate the image’s body or do they repress it? On the whole we would say the panels are a gambit offered the viewer that is perhaps best declined.

By comparison to the meretricious “Entertainers,” the two pieces from “Gangs”—Untitled 1982–84 and Girlfriends, 1984—appear exemplars of visual austerity. In both of these Prince reveals his alertness to the cultures strategies of resemblance and appropriation, and his possession of the sort of skewed vision necessary to separate cultural images from their mythic promise. Untitled contains the nine fragments of women’s-fashion photos presented as a large “gang” sheet. The total effect is of a visual pun or play on the obscuring of vision, the “look”; at the same time, it reminds us of co-optation of the body by style, sartor resartus—cum grano salis. In a similar format, Girlfriends contains 12 photographs representative of the marginal caste of bikers women. Prince has carefully organized these by the ratio of camera to subject into three columns in descending order of distance. The contextual terms of Untitled and Girlfriends are not the same, nor are their critical resolutions. Fashion models are armored by the designs of their creators; they perform for the camera in full knowledge of their function and their audience. In contrast, the “girlfriends” act within a private relation that turns against them, unclothing their vulnerability in the voyeurism of the public realm (i.e., the biker’s magazines from which these photos derive). The ethical ambiguities underlined in the juxtaposition of these two “gangs” of women raise, one more time, the troublesome issues of taking pictures.

The significance of Prince’s position has always been that he places himself not behind the work as author, nor in it as subject, but before it as audience. Although it may represent an important moment in the transvaluation of the artist, Prince’s stance does not entirely liberate him from a certain inevitable complicity with his sources.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom