Los Angeles

Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams

Kuhlenschmidt-Simon Gallery

Collectively entitled “The Construction and Maintenance of Our Enemies,” this collaboration between Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams took the form of 13 black-and-white photographs of plant specimens at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, all from 1986. At first glance, these carefully composed depictions of roses, cacti, and other, more exotic plants appeared to be an ironic demystification of the conventions of landscape photography—especially those established by such hallowed Modernists as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams—through the direct simulation of historical models. As with most conceptual pieces, however, the work’s real discourse stood outside the parameters of the immediate text, focusing instead on the process of collaboration and creative decision making.

Our first clue to this extratextual signification lay in the work’s rigorous documentation. Each photograph was accompanied by a wall plaque identifying the subject’s country of origin, taxonomic genus, and location within the artificial world of the gardens themselves. For example, the “Voodoo Lily” from Northwest India can be found in the “Jungle Garden,” while a pot of “Sweet Gum Trees” is classified under “Zen Garden.” The whole concept of a botanical garden is thus revealed as an ordered construct, a choreographing of nature through what Prina and Williams call “botanical imperialism.” Why bother trekking through the jungles and deserts of the real world when you can visit the local museum and have everything neatly mapped out for you? This touches upon Roland Barthes’ notion of a seemingly natural image of nature that conceals an ideological (in this case, bourgeois) encoding posited in the seductive power of spectacle and recreation.

Taken at face value, this is hardly an original premise. Where Prina and Williams really score is through the indictment of their own editorial function within this larger critique. A printed supplement to the exhibition explains that the photographs first appeared in issue #44 of New Observations, a New York-based journal that the artists coedited earlier this year. There, surrounded by short stories, poems, and essays by different writers, the photos act as an intrusive “other,” seemingly unrelated to the texts yet central to their “construction and maintenance” as a coherent body of work. As editors, Prina and Williams exercise ideological control through the process of including and excluding—in short, creating a predetermined “meaning” through the reifying rhetoric of layout, indexing, and packaging.

Given this knowledge of the project’s source, we “read” the exhibition differently. It now seems parasitical to a broader (con)text, blurring distinctions between source material and redocumentation. Do we read the magazine as an “advertisement” for the exhibition or vice versa? Are the gallery photos an objectification of the magazine images, or are we to see both as false representations of a false object (the arbitrarily catalogued plants themselves)? Prina and Williams have edited both magazine and exhibition to suit their own conceptual premise, the same way that the botanical gardens have edited their subjects to fit a predetermined geographical and historical discourse.

Just as the artists invited writers to participate in their magazine project, they included the work of two guest artists to complement their gallery exhibition. Amateur photographer John L. Grahm’s grainy color photograph taken in the same gardens was an award winner in a photography contest sponsored by the Los Angeles Times Magazine; it represents a populist, image-as-thing-of-beauty contrast to the conceptual posturing of Prina and Williams. Tim Ebner’s series of wood-and-resin checkerboard wall pieces from 1980 are based on the slick appropriation of natural materials and processes as fetishistic design—a neat parallel to the Huntington’s (and Prina and Williams’) own ordering strategy, in which the simulation takes precedence over the real thing.

The obvious drawback of Prina and Williams’ strategy lies in its hermetic structure. Because deeper “meaning” and thus ideological interpretation are directly dependent upon a secondary, explanatory text, the photographs and objects have limited signification in and of themselves. Yet this could also be seen as a precise disclosure of the very nature of mythmaking as a whole. Behind every self-evident text lies another text that modifies its meaning, and behind that text lies yet another—and so on, ad infinitum. For Prina and Williams, the notion of an ideologically homogeneous exhibit is clearly as problematic as the “universal” language system that seems to define it. We end up mistrusting everything, not least the artists themselves.

Colin Gardner