New York

Stephen Prina

Though historically Conceptual art protests the collusion of art and capital, at the close of a decade in which conceptual procedures have been recuperated by the market as the ultimate in severe chic, idea art often looks like the most thoroughly reified product of all. By contrast, the co-option of conventional paintings and sculptures seems an almost innocent affair. Stephen Prina’s self-consciously austere works are exemplary in the former respect: they deftly don the guises of criticality while maintaining a basically passive stance toward the apparatuses of the art industry.

Prina rehearses numerous conceptualist strategies: serialism, enumeration, systems, all in the paternal intonations of institutional critique. In Exquisite Corpse: the Complete Paintings of Manet, an ongoing project since 1988, Prina has created monochrome ink-wash surrogates for Manet’s entire corpus. Displayed with a chart documenting the complete sequence of catalogued paintings in minute but accurate scale, they invoke and recreate Manet’s corpus only as a manifestation of canonical, institutional authority; all contestations within it—historical, stylistic, thematic—are summarily dismissed. Positing Manet only as a cipher of authority, Prina deliberately ignores the artist’s own historical position in the cross currents of political, economic, as well as artistic revolutions. Prina evinces a certain weird humor in his necrophilic representation of Manet. His approach seems at once reverential and mocking, an ambivalence that persists throughout his work. Exquisite Corpse looks rather like a market critique, but at the same time Prina’s patented serial procedure tirelessly turns out more chattels. A carefully structured chain of references—Sol Lewitt, Mel Bochner, Hanne Darboven, Michael Asher, Allan McCollum, Sherrie Levine—at once assures Prina of a pedigree and allies him with the kind of art-historical self-consciousness that ostensibly “undermines” such models of legitimation. Prina apparently wants to have it both ways, critically exposing the workings of institutions while living comfortably within them, a strategy that links him with many commodity-conscious artists of the ’80s. In Mailing List: March 1990, Prina presents the gallery’s mailing list as a sculpture of boxed cards and addressed envelopes. Institutional critique and institutional advertisement are seamlessly coextensive.

Upon the Occasion of Receivership, 1989, takes a work of Lawrence Weiner, A Translation From One Language To Another, 1969, and does just that. Prina translates the phrase into the 61 languages taught by Berlitz and laser-prints the results on Berlitz stationery. He might be alluding to the commodification of Conceptualism itself, but what is more revealing is the network of self-validating institutionalized authority on which it depends. It recalls the theorem for tautology, A = B, B = A. That is: Lawrence Weiner = language = art about language = “pure” Conceptualism = politically correct attitude = smart ( = Stephen Prina?).

Prina appropriates the look of much conceptual art and regurgitates it as reified formula. The imposing presentation of his art, coupled with its reliance on a phantom supplement of legitimizing critical theory renders it a prime instance of smug intimidation.

David Rimanelli