JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 large scale color works, hung unframed against white walls in the single room gallery space behind the bookshop. All of the works are inkjet prints on canvas, made in 2014. Each is sized roughly 66×49 and is unique. A small catalog of the exhibit (containing 38 works) is available at the desk for free. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: For those unfamiliar with the arc of Richard Prince’s long career, his new Instagram-based portraits might appear to be cheap shot throw-aways, a simplistic (and often vulgar) exercise in provocative, opportunistic cashing in. But if we step back from the knee jerk demonization and look more closely at what Prince has been doing on Twitter and Instagram in the last few years, it becomes immediately clear that these images aren’t just one-offs, but merely a handful of examples from a larger fire hose of ongoing commentary and audience participation by Prince, made up of equal parts standup comedy, performance art, and cultural intervention. Social media has become a new platform for artistic expression, and these inkjet paintings are a collector-ready physical manifestation of Prince’s evolving presence in that realm.
Process-wise, Prince’s inkjet paintings are Instagram images that the artist has discovered/selected, commented on, rephotographed with his iPhone, and then enlarged/printed out on canvas. (For those that feel the need to wrangle over “inkjet paintings” not being photography, a deeper analysis of the relationship between the two can be found here.) The change in scale is important, as it transforms the intimate, shared-in-your-hand, personal (and arguably somewhat private) feel of Instagram into an experience with powerful public wall presence; these faces look down with vitality, with a shout of attention grabbing look-at-me size that amplifies their original energy.
Photographic appropriation is of course nothing new to Richard Prince; he’s been a pioneer of the practice since the 1970s. He’s thoughtfully (some might say obsessively) gathered and reused stock photography, advertising images (the Marlboro cowboy in particular), celebrity headshots, pulp pinups, and seedy cultural icons (biker chicks, muscle cars, monster trucks, upstate landscapes), turning each into wry and sometimes risky commentaries on the underside of America. Appropriation and collecting go hand in hand, and Prince’s works have often taken the form of groups, series, and bundles of images (“gangs”), where typological comparisons can take place and the larger patterns he has discovered can be brought front and center.
Given the cultural ubiquity of the selfie and all that it represents about changing attitudes to privacy, our obsession with fame and celebrity, and the burgeoning discipline of personal identity management, it should come as no surprise that Prince has turned his attention to appropriating selfies; they’re a perfect fit for his brand of cultural commentary. What’s intriguingly different about using these pictures is that he’s no longer at arms length. All of the other photographs he has ever appropriated were in a sense anonymous to him; he was working with them in a manner far removed from their original purpose. Here he’s engaging in a kind of participatory appropriation, where the artist persona of Richard Prince is actively and publicly involved with the actual person in the photograph (or his or her fanboy proxy), alternately adding to or drafting off of his subject’s relative celebrity (from Pamela Anderson and Kate Moss to Internet unknowns). He’s parachuted into their lives like a party crasher, alternately adding to the fun or playing the jackass. And he’s not hiding in the background as an ivory tower artist – he’s openly engaging all who come at him.
If appropriation has consistently been on one side of Prince’s artistic coin, language can reliably be found on the other. His works have routinely included and incorporated jokes, cartoon captions, “personalized” dedications, and book titles, using words and text as an integral part of his artistic practice. His Instagram portraits continue this exploration, using the public comments field as a kind of melting pot of Princian inside jokes, offhand remarks, bad puns, dirty old man lewdness, fragmented/indecipherable Internet speak, and random emoji. On the surface, it looks tossed off (just like most social media comments), but there is a sly brilliance to this goofball, phony character performance that can only be the product of a very clever mind. In a certain way, he’s appropriated our new way of communicating, and then subsequently broken it down and rebuilt it as a deadpan vehicle for social satire; while we’re laughing at (or pitying) his pastiche of trying-to-be-hip ridiculousness and wondering if we should take him seriously, he’s laughing right back at us, the cackling alchemist mixing the illusory and the real. At the same time, Prince is flaunting our surprising lack of control. While we may think that the images we post online are “secure” or “ours” in some manner, his pictures quickly undermine that outdated fantasy.
Prince’s insertion of language also provides a method for him to hijack the implied visual narrative. While the selfie may have been taken or posted for one reason (a sexy look, a sassy come on, a swaggering cool), Prince has provided his own alternate interpretation, effectively turning the camera back on himself – it is his offbeat reaction that we’re watching, more so than the original image. He then pushes this invasion of personal space further by treading into a creepy stalker mode, selecting scantily clad young women and testing our appetite for leering lecherousness. Once again he’s digging into the cultural underbelly of the current moment, this time using the stereotypical troll personality of the Internet as a destabilizing agent.
His image choices also lead us to double back and consider how these Instagram portraits are a contemporary update of Prince’s ongoing (and some might say oblique) investigation of gender roles. He’s already given us the cool machismo of the cowboy, the blunt sexuality of the biker girlfriend, and the chaste aloofness of the masked nurse. The new pictures dive deeper into personal exhibitionism and narcissism, where both male and female personas are being crafted with meticulous care and the question of what is normal becomes more obscure. Prince’s women are confidently quirky and sexual, while his men are struggling to find the right level of mysterious masculine reserve; seen together, the images make us consider just how many layers of personal counterfeit have now become commonplace.
These pictures will be like catnip for a certain kind of collector, which is in a certain way a bit disheartening, as their broad intelligence will be lost in the scrum of frantic trophy hunting; the private commission opportunities of those wanting their own Prince Instagram portrait will likely be reminiscent of the Warhol treatment. But behind their brash, of-the-moment aggressiveness and their jump-on-the-bandwagon trendiness lies a thoughtful and deliberate evolution of Prince’s approach, a smart application of artistic ideas he’s been nurturing for decades to the cultural infrastructure of today. These are sneakily incisive and overtly disruptive works, and like them or not, they’re ones were going to be seeing plenty of in the future.
Collector’s POV: I was told the works in this show were “priced under $100000 and all sold” while Jerry Saltz’ earlier review in New York quoted the prices as roughly $40000 each, so it’s not at all clear what the real prices are or were and what the variations from image to image might have been. Prince’s photographic works are ubiquitous at auction, with dozens of lots available every season. Recent prices have an extremely wide range, from as little as a few thousand dollars for large edition prints to as much as roughly $4 million for icons and rarities.