New York

Stephen Prina, Blind No. 15, Fifteen-foot ceiling or lower, (Primary Magenta/Phthalo Blue [Red Shade]/Hansa Yellow Opaque/Primary Yellow), 2011, triptych, acrylic on linen, window-blind mechanism, each panel 15' 3 7/8“ x 3' 4 7/8”.

Stephen Prina, Blind No. 15, Fifteen-foot ceiling or lower, (Primary Magenta/Phthalo Blue [Red Shade]/Hansa Yellow Opaque/Primary Yellow), 2011, triptych, acrylic on linen, window-blind mechanism, each panel 15' 3 7/8“ x 3' 4 7/8”.

Stephen Prina

Stephen Prina, Blind No. 15, Fifteen-foot ceiling or lower, (Primary Magenta/Phthalo Blue [Red Shade]/Hansa Yellow Opaque/Primary Yellow), 2011, triptych, acrylic on linen, window-blind mechanism, each panel 15' 3 7/8“ x 3' 4 7/8”.

One might reasonably wonder whether or not the review you are now reading is warranted. Though the press release accompanying Stephen Prina’s seventh exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery announced the presentation of “new paintings,” the exhibition nonetheless closely mirrored one staged at Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston, in 2009.

It’s a fair question. In Boston, as in New York, the paintings were gestural monochromes, executed on the surface of commercial blinds—the bland, single-piece-of-fabric type that rolls up and out of sight when not in use. The double meaning of “blind paintings” is, in and of itself, worth noting, since the implications are meaty. On the one hand, the term refers to a utilitarian object as the ground for painting; on the other, it implies that the object presents a problem—that of how we may consider painting outside of, or shut off from, the strictly visual. Yet, for the conceit of these works, still the pragmatics: Do those first shown in Boston preclude the reconsideration of others in New York at Petzel (to say nothing of still more that have been getting around—a version that appeared in the Whitney Biennial in 2008, for instance, or another iteration shown just last year at Kölnischer Kunstverein, Germany)?

One could argue, as I would, that these works are rife with material distinctions from one another—the colors, for instance, while “primary,” are nonetheless subtle in hue, density, and effect; the mode of application, while generically “gestural,” is nonetheless compositional. Yet saying that paintings with a superficially shared look can carry differences is beside the point. (Nobody assumes equivalence between works by Robert Ryman.) What is more interesting is that Prina’s paintings come to operate less as things and more as signifiers, as operations taking physical form. And therein lies the rub: The repetition of a concept—and one thinks of other artists here, from Marcel Duchamp to Sherrie Levine—is frequently regarded with much more suspicion than any repetition of form.

But anyone familiar with Prina’s work knows that for a very long time he has utilized repetition as a kind of formal experiment, pressing it so far into use that he courts a productive exhaustion. To that end, somewhat differently from a painter who might try out every possible solution to a white painting, he asks what it might mean to deplete forms so fully that they offer themselves up anew. In this most recent show at Petzel, in addition to three blind paintings (all triptychs), Prina continued his series “Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet” and “Untitled/Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet,” exhibiting one new entry from each body of work. Since 1988, the artist has worked his way through the great modernist’s oeuvre, creating versions of Manet paintings that both reassert and erase the pictures they ostensibly present. Whether rendered in light monochromatic washes of ink on rag (as in the former) or via barely there cord stretched around pins in the wall to describe a square (in the latter), Prina’s Manets, while to scale, are otherwise rendered via the minimal requirements, and perhaps even just below them.

Prina’s repeat-offender status strangely allows him—and us—to focus all the more clearly on any present context. Indeed, if one were to look at Petzel’s website in the days just following his opening at the gallery, one set of installation images was on offer. Yet after March 10, when a single-day project was hung (featuring collaborative works between Prina and Wade Guyton, who have for three years pressed their individual endgame practices into temporary tandem), the installation shots have changed, if slightly. One can see light but palpable traces of disruption, evidence of a rupture within the very fabric of a routine exhibition.

Johanna Burton