Diamonds and Dirt
The wonderful world of Richard Prince
‘Spiritual America’ is the title of a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, a close-up of the flanks and groin of a gelded horse, glistening with sweat. ‘Spiritual America’ is also the title given by Richard Prince to his re-presentation of a photograph of the actress Brooke Shields, taken when she was only ten, in which her lithe, oiled, pre-pubescent body is bizarrely joined to the sultry adult face of the soon-to-be media star. The same title was given to a short-lived New York gallery set up by Prince in 1983, primarily as a forum for presenting this single work. Most recently, ‘Spiritual America’ resurfaced as the title of a book published to coincide with the artist’s 1989 exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art in Valencia, in Spain. The publication retains a dual role as a retrospective survey of Prince’s work and a fascinating re-integration of his repertoire of images into the format from which they mostly originated - the magazine.
This latest Spiritual America is in fact a hybrid of book, catalogue, and magazine, containing straight-up reproductions of photographic works (themselves re-photographs of magazine images), photopieces newly made for the publication, studio and installation shots, jokes printed directly as text on the page or screenprinted onto canvases reproduced on the page, or in drawings screenprinted onto canvas, reproduced as such or as ‘works of art’ leaning against the walls in gallery stores, sometimes in the company of other artists’ works. Along with the jokes there are other texts, of equally ambiguous status: Prince’s own writings, other people’s writings about Prince, and phrases plucked out of the controlled drone of media meta-language, a muzak of meaning. There is a purported interview with the artist by J.G. Ballard from 1967, when Prince was 18, constructing for himself a suitably unrooted pedigree.
The images themselves are as various as their form of presentation and status, but they never tumble into cacophony. Prince isn’t flicking through the channels with his remote control, he has insinuated himself into the editing suite without bothering to ask permission and is busy hacking into the system with an agility that seems like second nature. Nor is he simply playing a fiendishly clever analytical game: he hunts out the telling gesture and the loaded image, the most virtuoso real. He deconstructs the image, often to devastating effect, especially in works from the early 80s which juxtapose identical gestures from different sources. It is clear, though, that for him this grammar, although a straightjacket, is not one simply inflicted on us by powerful, sinister, unknown figures, but instead is imposed upon us by ourselves. We look to images for what we know we want, and they tell us we want them again.
The fluid, breathless pacing that characterises Spiritual America is largely a consequence of its magazine format, which paradoxically offers more freedom than the strict rules Prince sets himself in his large scale work for walls: namely the ‘ganging’ of images (usually in regimented groups of six or nine), and the uniform physical characteristics of the works in series like ‘Cowboys’, through to the ‘gangs’ themselves and the joke screenprints, to the more recent, three-dimensional ‘hoods’. Instead, here, we have great vagaries of scale and focus within the standard page format, allied to repetition and contrast on a level impossible in an exhibition. Images are presented non-chronologically and non-thematically; details of glamorous ads for cigarettes and perfumes are interspersed with soft porn magazine covers and hard rock fanzine or biker cult shots; customised cars and jeeps are shown alongside the ubiquitous cowboy pictures; sunset beach scenes and the obsessive, inconsequential joke pictures are presented side by side.
The overriding impression is one of a restless searching. Given the goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Prince suggests that it is the pursuit itself, epitomised as a sort of fluctuation between idealism and bathos, that most fully characterises the late twentieth century American spirit. Deferral followed by short-term gratification followed by deferral, in an endless spiral of calculated self-delusion. A million moments of final definition, a continuum of closure. Prince himself does not challenge this spirit but highlights its force and follows its logic.
It is a logic of contradiction. Captions are appended to the wrong comic illustrations. Wild hyperbole and misguided metaphor in many of the phrases quoted from general circulation serve to negate each other: Oscar De La Renta. In the lightest sense of the word. Flowing. Streamlined. Astoundingly simple / From drifting in society’s underbelly to redefining the good life. One especially telling double spread of images shows, on the left, the crystalline geometry of three pairs of details from ads for cigarettes, watches, and pens, mirrored on the facing page by six black and white portraits of less than glamorous ‘Girlfriends’, touched by weakness and doubt but still smiling, posing, wanting something and selling something. In ‘Criminals and Celebrities’, a ‘gang’ from 1986, the famous and the notorious cover their faces with hands, arms,or jackets. If they all have so much to hide, we are compelled to ask, what is the qualitative difference between their gestures? In Prince’s world health is something to drink to, and humiliation can be offered as a favour. He recognises a double reality in the way we locate ourselves through our desires, creating an energised tension: between the seduction of surrogacy, and the profound anxiety we still feel about being subsumed in the collective mind.
The moods evoked in Spiritual America veer sharply from esteem to disgust, with little in between. This is partly due to the range of subject matter from high glamour promotions to low life cult culture. More fundamentally, though, it is suggested in the image grammar itself, where breakdown is always implied at the very moment of revelation. We are faced with a succession of frozen moments, caught just before the eye blinks, the shutter closes, the mirror case snaps shut, the wave breaks or the punch line is delivered. The short, snappy and repeated jokes are particularly pure instances of build up and expectation followed by let down and release, like mental deep breathing. Our response is made all the more regulated and rhythmic by an instinctive awareness that it is not unique to us: we hear the canned laughter somewhere in the back of our minds. As Prince said in an Art in America interview in 1987, ‘It’s almost as if in this culture information touches a chord in us the same way a hit song makes you impulsively keep a beat with everybody else - because you know you’re not the only one who thinks the song is great.’ On this analogy, Spiritual America is a long-playing medley of Richard Prince’s hits and B-sides. You can pick it up anywhere. Once it starts, it never really finishes. ‘The show must go on. The show goes on. Then there’s another show.’
Spiritual America: Richard Prince is published by Aperture/ IVAM
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.