Stephen Prina

“You’re probably the first artist to get/Viewers to put part of a work/In their mouths and suck on it/Oral gratification.” These lyrics are from the song played in Stephen Prina’s exhibition “The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex.” Prina utilized various means to transform the gallery space into what the press release called a “mini-Broadway-musical-on-the-road”: He painted a portion of the walls pale blue and carpeted the floor in a matching shade; he converted six shipping crates into padded benches; he hung a small light box displaying the image of a book barely visible among lilies; and he arranged eight loudspeakers to form an incomplete grid on the wall, with a single, somewhat larger loudspeaker illuminated by a spotlight.

This show was similar to Prina’s 2006 exhibition of almost the same title at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York, but the installation in Cologne used a different color key and was adapted to the gallery’s layout. Playing with the conventions of the spectacle, what Prina has come up with is simultaneously a cursory poetics of artistic production, presentation, and reception, and an intelligent, moving homage to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996. Traced out in large letters on the wall was the phrase . . . THINGS FELIX FORGOT TO TELL US . . . —an excerpt from the lyrics of the song we heard coming out of the loudspeakers, which was performed by Prina himself (including various vocal parts and guitar). The lyrics, forming a loose web of allusions to Gonzalez-Torres’s artistic work, are as ambiguous as they are melancholic. “Mourning Sex,” the second part of the title—taken from Peggy Phelan’s book of the same name, whose subtitle is “Performing Public Memories”—plays with just this ambiguity. The memories Prina is performing are indeed public, i.e., published: The lyrics of his song have been assembled from phrases found in a 2006 Gonzalez-Torres catalogue edited by Julie Ault—a book whose cover displays a pale blue hue similar to the shade used for the floors and walls of the gallery. On the wooden sides of the shipping crates–cum–seating units, Prina thanks the phrases’ authors, an impressive list ranging from Ault herself to Roland Barthes, Bertolt Brecht, Marguerite Duras, Joseph Kosuth, Rainer Maria Rilke, Tim Rollins, Susan Sontag, Simon Watney, and, of course, Gonzalez-Torres.

The layers of meaning in Prina’s works develop through a series of art-historical references and influences, as can be seen as well in the latest additions to his series “Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet,” 1988–, on display in a side room of the gallery. These works, which echo the French painter’s canvases only in their measurements, prompt us to consider the function of reference in art. Why do certain references become visible in certain forms, while others are more likely to remain hidden? In short: What can serve as a sounding board for artistic statement these days, whether or not the references in question are openly manifested within the work of art itself. Prina brilliantly and seductively places this dialectic center stage, thereby compensating for a loss of historical memory while at the same time remaining fully aware—and putting this knowledge to good use—that “art,” as Prina’s song goes, can be “the greatest persuader.”

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.