New York

Stephen Prina

American Fine Arts

As Stephen Prina’s newest project, Dom-Hotel, Zimmer 101, Köln, 1994, suggests, analyzing the institutional context of art and artmaking can be fun. Earlier works such as Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Oeuvre of Manet, 1988, and Monochrome Painting, 1988–89, addressed the way in which our insatiable appetite for constructing elaborate architectures of classification inevitably leads to a perverse privileging of the naming/coding system over the objects themselves, thereby reducing cultural artifacts to the status of pitiable signs to be exchanged like commodities.

Like Sherrie Levine, Prina repudiates the notion that the terms of originality have remained constant, particularly in an era in which speaking through the appropriated voice(s) of history is no longer tantamount to original sin, but, rather, understood as a productive use of the anxiety of influence. For example, Prina has re-presented the history of abstract monochrome painting and the complete painting production of Manet by converting art history’s Modernist canon into a generic catalogue of available tropes. In a similar vein, Stephen Prina: Galerie Max Hetzler, 1991, addressed institutional codes of display. For this project, Prina assembled an honorific history of Hetzler’s galleries in Cologne and Stuttgart with photographic documentation of all exhibitions and scaled-down models of the gallery’s various architectural transformations. The show became something of a retrospective of the gallery itself, with Prina playing the role of conceptual archivist, both mapping and reconstructing the institutional space’s genealogy of “self-representations.”

In Dam-Hotel, Zimmer 101, Köln, we were presented with a project contingent on its own spatio-temporal evolution. Prina designed a continuous series of interconnecting wooden shelves based on the floor plan of a room in the hotel that functioned as the location for a scene in Jean-Marie Straub’s and Danielle Huillet’s 1965 film Not Reconciled, or, Only violence helps where violence rules. A film still of this scene, in which a character identified as Johanna Faehmel recites a long monologue while looking out of her hotel room window, was placed in the gallery with two other related images: a recto-verso picture of the same room during the day, and a second view of it on the evening (September 9, 1994) of the book signing of Prina’s limited-edition publication, Johanna Faehmel’s Monologue. Each day, throughout the duration of the exhibition, three of these books were put on display on the shelving units, with three more pages of the German/English text opened to the readers. By the end of the show, the shelves were filled and the entire book exposed for scrutiny.

The book is the key element here, for it is as much a self-contained “conceptual” project as it is the source of information for understanding the distinct layers of historical and geographic/cultural references that have “framed” Prina’s various activities. Moving through the first pages of the·publication, Prina provides just enough data for us to form a sense of his purpose; we see that he “read the fifth chapter from Heinrich Böll’s novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, in English translation, on February 13, 1987, at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, Venice, California. . . . ” This appropriated chapter from the Böll novel comprises the main body of text in Prina’s publication. Flipping through a number of blank black pages, we run across a reference to Prina’s book signing at the Dom-Hotel, then the still from the Straub/Huillet film on facing pages. Finally, the (appropriated) Boll text, printed in English and German on consecutive sections of black, red, and orange paper.

What are we to make of all of this? It seems that Prina is attempting to develop a new language to map out the conceptual processes of his art practice by revealing suggestive fragments of his own intellectual/experiential history. Using himself as an example, Prina subtly reminds us that our own cultural desires and fascinations are also subject to the sublimely ridiculous, albeit libidinal, urge for order and rationality.

Joshua Decter