Los Angeles

Richard Prince

In one of his acute essays about Richard Prince’s work, Jim Lewis honed in on the artist’s strange insistence on “facticity as a precondition of artmaking.” Certainly facts (in the form of handwriting, verbatim ads, jokes) perform an important role in Prince’s project—giving credence to Lewis’s conclusion: “As a consequence Prince’s work is as much a matter of its absences as it [sic] presences: there is no beauty, no expression, no imitation of the real, nothing to be interpreted, appreciated, no immediately visible rhetoric, nothing original.” I start here because one of the reasons Prince’s recent paintings are so breathtaking is that, whatever else may be going on, there is a surprising amount of beauty on display: the colors radiating from the group of canvases, which could be seen as a depiction of the seasons or of various sunsets, the expressionistic handiwork in the brushstroke, and on top of an this, an acerbic manhandling of the real.

I am not sure that some of this has not been going on all along in Prince’s work: I have come to think of his Untitled, 1975 a blurred photocollage of oncoming nighttime and rainy highways taken from the driver’s-side vantage of a car, as establishing one vector of his project to be finding the beauty in the factual mundane. His vibrant, covetable resin casts of flip-flops shown last summer at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York surely continued this pursuit. The new works (acrylic paintings that are also silkscreened and drawn on in crayon), with their variegated hues of purple, seashore oranges, pinks, and beiges and repeated stick figures screened from children’s drawings, appear as one of the points along this trajectory. The figures are violent: scary tykes who shoot at one another and almost anything (cats, dogs, etc.) that crosses their path. It is with these shoot-outs that Prince engages the real, albeit with a biting humor. In the daunting Untitled (all works 1998), one of the artist’s signature cornball jokes laughs darkly: “I just sent my kid to a real tough school. Christ, the school newspaper has an obituary column.” Prince strikes a balance between getting the wild, raucous energy of the moment—the violence and the ecstasy—onto the field of painting and tempering it with the bleak fact that in his world any beauty is shadowed by a death threat. Like most kids, you’d have to be a real stick-in-the-mud not to enjoy the bloody antics of stick figures duking it out. Prince’s joke paintings get at this fun, until you realize that they’re really not quite a joke.

Even though Prince’s works use deadpan comedy to point in the direction of things more sober, there are still a bunch of gags worthy of the sickest class clown. #7/Just Married includes a really good chicken-crossing-the-road joke among its pink and black patches and more guns, cats, and dogs; Going Going Going acts out in forest green and suicide jokes. But the key piece, the one that forms bizarre and complex intersections between the stick figures in the paintings and the autographed photos of stars like Neve Campbell and Cameron Diaz used to advertise the show, was Untitled (We Know What You Did Last Summer), a publicity still of the dreadful Jennifer Love Hewitt, the über-super Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the dazed, surfer-sylphish Ryan Phillippe, arm in cast, all posed outdoors. The young stars have each scrawled their autograph for Prince and one of them has written, as the title suggests, “Richard Prince, we know what you did last summer.” Over the top of Phillippe’s torso someone has drawn a dinky, violent stick figure. The connections between the brutality of the quotidian, the sheer fun of letting any representation (teen stars) scare you to death, and how “art” supposedly deals with this horror show begin to multiply. Prince casually, deftly, scatters so many facts among the ruins of fame and acculturation.

Bruce Hainley