New York

Richard E. Prince

49th Parallel

This show presents five of Richard E. Prince’s works from the past seven years. All but one are accompanied by perfectly finished, small-scale models. In the mid ’70s, Prince made stage sets that depicted natural phenomena (such as wind) as theatrical devices. These little machines, contained in cases of wood or glass, showed the artist’s early interest in simultaneously creating and revealing illusions. This interest continued in a series of freestanding nude sculptures that drew attention to their dual reality as both inanimate objects and representations of human beings. By the early ’80s, Prince began to experiment with models of 18th-century devices used to illustrate the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment. Taking his cue from the artist Joseph Wright of Derby, he focused on such devices as the orrery, or model of the solar system. Parts of the Orrery, 1982–84, is a progression of wooden spheres encased in galvanized steel and mounted on grandiose carts. By disassembling an orrery and presenting its individual parts with such dramatic flourish, Prince reminds us that this device’s primary function was to entertain, to fascinate, and to embody the phenomena it represented. More recent works in this show point to Prince’s move toward constructing illusions that betray themselves, first to fool us, and then to make us aware of our willingness to be fooled. The Transit of Venus, 1988, is a sleek, minimal reenactment of the movement of a planet. A small motor moves a primitive mechanism, which propels the model of the planet back and forth. This modern day orrery is decidedly low-tech. By leaving the mechanics in full view, Prince has given away the secret of the piece. Sailing Past Jupiter, 1989, is a similar solar minitheatre, in which light is projected onto a smooth, wooden sphere. A clear plastic gel rotates a tiny spot in front of the light, cyclically casting a moving shadow. As with The Transit of Venus, the piece is pitched somewhere between a believable recreation of a natural event and a piece of mechanical trickery.

Prince is equally adept at representing less tangible phenomena. In The Oracle, 1989, a steel can is connected to two copper megaphones by a long brass tube. Prince has taken the oracle—that pivotal character in classical literature—and revealed it to be a “canned” device, in the same way the great and powerful Wizard of Oz was revealed to be a charlatan when Toto pulled back the curtain. Similarly, Ex Machina, 1987, problematizes another convenient literary device; the deus ex machina, or the moment of divine intervention into the mortal world. Gold fluid is pumped into a basin, which sits on a classical pedestal. The fluid is perpetually removed from and redeposited into the basin by a rotating disc. The beauty of the classical elements—of pedestal, basin, and gold—is challenged and preempted by the mechanical elements of motor, pump, and tubes. The divine is revealed to be a construct; the god, no more than a machine.

Jenifer P. Borum