Stephen Prina

The Renaissance Society

333 West Wacker Drive is one of Chicago’s most distinctive post-Modern buildings.Its sinuous curve follows the curve of the Chicago river and its shimmering green glass is the color of iridescent silk, of certain shades of water—and, now, of corporate office space. Stephen Prina’s work, which was installed in the first floor gallery of this building (an additional site for the Renaissance Society) seemed to have been infected by this ubiquitous green. Monochrome Painting, 1989, consists of 14 green canvases painted with the same acrylic enamel. This green stops light, stops illusion, stops thought; the dull surface is more cladding than color, and seems to vacuum and deaden the air around it. The uniformity, sterility, and closure—the alienation—that characterize corporate space is re-enacted in the work.

But what looked like site-specificity was just coincidence. Prina’s installation, with its 14 blind spots, was conceived independently of its site, and not as a bald-faced ideological reflection on the place in which it was eventually housed. In fact, each of Prina’s pieces imitates in size and proportion a historically recognized monochrome painting (identified by subtitle), calling up a litany of modern male masters. Each reference suggests a different rationale for reductivism—Kasimir Malevich, purity; Robert Rauschenberg, rebellion; Yves Klein, effect; Ad Reinhardt, absurdity; Robert Ryman, subtlety. Prina’s roster flattens into one atemporal now the particular significance that each of these paintings has had in art history—its set of motivations, rationalizations, and effects. Once their specificity is lost, the paintings become synonymous.

Prina has also cross-referenced these works—14 paintings, 14 stations of the cross—and organized them chronologically; first is Christ Condemned to Death (Kasimir Malevich), the last is The Entombment (Blinky Palermo). What looks like flagrantly arbitrary titular referencing is instead a histrionic death knell, tolling 14 times; Prina’s gesture can be seen as a kind of summary murder. The addition of this ironic superstructure marks each monochrome as a nail in painting’s coffin, each artist a Judas, and each piece a pre-ordained betrayal, all leading toward painting’s inevitable and sacrifical end.

It is hard not to fall for the conceptual clarity of this installation. But such work merely spells out a certain set of possibilities within a very limited set of terms. To the extent that Prina’s work evokes the contingencies of history and exposes them as contextually defined, it is illuminating. But to the extent that it attempts to bulldoze history by summarizing it—as if the present had the authority to define the past and to dictate the future, too—it is closed, and gives us nothing.

The ideal site for Prina’s cleverness is the exhibition catalogue, an opportunity which he has cleverly exploited. The impulse to summarize is perfectly suited to the implied self-containment of a book. The catalogue includes tipped-in and scaled-down reproductions of each piece in black and white; the color conversion makes them look like unexposed slides, or a collection of pure black postage stamps. The elaborate titles are the only text other than the acknowledgements, and they take on added importance; the preface consists of a vaguely visible reproduction of an installation view of Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings, 1966, at the Jewish Museum. Why is the catalogue—also reticent and many times veiled—so much better than the exhibition? Maybe because its tiny size is more appropriately scaled to the ambition of the work. Besides, premature funerals should be quiet and discrete.

Laurie Palmer