in Features | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Editions of You

J. G. Ballard, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Brooke Shields and The Dukes of Hazzard - Bruce Hainley on misinformation and fakery in the signatures of Richard Prince

in Features | 06 JUN 01

The signature as proof of identity; as drawing; as fiction. Being signed with an 'X'.

J. G. Ballard: 'I read in the paper that your troubles started with improper, or I think it was "the lack of sufficient papers of identity".'

Richard Prince: 'It was really stupid. I didn't have a photograph of myself in my passport. Somehow the photograph that had been in my passport became unglued and fell out somewhere. I don't know ... I don't know how it happened. All I know is when I opened my passport in customs I found out it was gone. The agents there just looked at me and started shaking their heads.'

Has-been - when the passport of identity/fame is lost or revoked - is a crucial concept for Prince's new work, which austerely arranges seemingly straightforward Hollywood stills and publicity head-shots, many of them signed or inscribed to Prince. Sometimes the star pictures are seen next to Prince photographs and re-photographs ('cowboys', 'girlfriends', 'gangs'), quoting earlier Princes. Like the most die-hard memorabilia collector, he has provided, within the matt of many of the works, a brief explanatory text.

A photo of Gwen Stefani, punk sprite lead singer of No Doubt is next to a photo of Jeri Ryan, the actress who plays 7 of 9, a cyborg, on Star Trek: Voyager. Next to a photo of Olivia D'Abo in a purple wig and futuristic space costume. Next to a photo of David Boreanaz in his vampire make-up, casually posed and sporting a 'blood'-stained 'wife-beater', in-between being himself and 'Angel', the brooding but good vampire with a soul from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off. Beneath these four shots, Christina Ricci - daunting décolletage; dark, nacreous gown - dons a chic stripe of eye shadow that creates a bar of blue-green across her eyes.

Is the connection between these stars some kind of alienness, monstrosity, or is it just unusual make-up styles? Is being famous 'being' like or 'looking' like something monstrous, alien? Is Christina Ricci being contrasted to the four stars above her or just the most normalized example of their look? Why is there only one man in this group? Does make-up evacuate gender? Does monstrousness naturalize femininity or point to its exotic difference? Does fame feminize?

'He made sure that his work looked the same and as natural as it had first appeared. His work was part of a "look" generation, and the effect of its appearance was so unreal that its real reality began to resemble a kind of virtuoso real ... a very real real capable of instamatic ambience.'

As with the quotation from the J. G. Ballard interview, the above is a piece of writing, a fiction by Prince in the third rather than the first person. The relation between this fiction and Prince's actual work and/or life is complicated. There is a naturalness to Prince's work: it is part of a 'look generation' but even this term suggests that, in respect to looking, the look had better be looked at again; that the question of who generates the look (those looking, the things looked at, the artist who objectifies the look) needs to be reconsidered. As in many of Prince's early works in which couples, women and men are looking in the same direction, looking is complicated by being an action (looking the same way) and an ontological condition (looking the same way).

The texts provided within the frame of the publicity works are pieces of writing, fictions. They are texts in the style of straightforward, informational memorabilia citation - a style so virtuosically real that it is often instantly taken as verification of what is seen. Both the texts and the sometime fiction of the signatures contain misspellings (Britney Spears appears as 'Briteny', 'Brittany'), misinformation (confusing character and actor, a shot of Mel Gibson in Road Warrior is signed 'Mad Max'), and misappellations (John Schneider's autograph says 'John Ritter'). The word 'below' is most often misspelled 'Bellow' (like the writer Saul's last name). When Prince writes 'a signed Jeri Ryan', one should think about asking 'signed by whom?'. As much as they are signed, they signify.

The publicity shots are sometimes autographed in pen by the star whose face is seen. For some reason, the signatures of Playboy Bunnies, both recent and not so recent, radiate a kind of inimitable 'realness'. Whatever that might mean in the realm of fame and photography is part of what this work is about. Some signed photos are faked - 'autographed' by Prince, sometimes well enough to pass as the star's actual signature, sometimes quite sloppily. In some instances, a silkscreen of a signature is printed on the photo to look something like an actual autograph. Often the silkscreened names (words) mimic or contrast with a corporate design of how the star's signature looks (one piece contrasts a Britney Spears fan badge with a stylized font of Britney Spears' signature and either an actual or faked Spears autograph on a head-shot beneath it). Edward Furlong's name appears in gold in a font which might be called Spidery Techno Gothic. Both Raquel Welch and Ryan Phillippe (sic.), in separate pieces, are accompanied by what looks like the signature of Randi Basky. Who is Randi Basky? While the authenticity of being, of identity, of the 'real', are under negotiation, Prince never re-photographs the head-shots themselves. They're real - what does this mean? - but no more real than a re-photograph.

While these pieces are often zanily hilarious, they're also surprisingly moving. The publicity work raises not only questions about the ontological problems of identity (how is anyone who they are - how to parse character, persona and person?) but also meditates on how anyone grows old, particularly an artist. How does the artist age, keeping what might be called a signature style and yet changing, if for no other reason so as not to become bored?

These works are, and contain, jokes. They are about the jokes called fame and existence. Their jokiness invokes Prince's own joke paintings and redrawn cartoons. 'Ganged' in groups, formally the publicity work recalls Prince's earlier gangings of girlfriends, boyfriends, bikers, parties. Some of the pieces use smaller versions of older, single re-photographed works by Prince. Newer, loopier invocations of cowboys derange older cowboy photos: posses of Hollywood stars or fashion and porn models wear cowboy hats (in one piece Christopher Atkins, Pam Grier, Jamie Walters and 'Ryan Phillippe' all sport cowboy hats to, sadly, humorously different effect). The appearance of Booth Coleman, in costume as Dr Zaius from Planet of the Apes (1968), on horseback in a rugged, western terrain next to new cowboy re-photos somehow demonstrates a paradoxical 'restraint' and 'reality' in the early re-photographs.

How debased, fictionalized or stylized can an invocation of a cowboy be and still retain the poignancy and power of all the dreams of liberty and expanse for which 'cowboy' stands? How is Christopher Atkins a cowboy? Do you remember who Christopher Atkins is? Do you find it sad to remember him? His signature isn't his own; it looks like it may be Chris Isaak's.

How is Dr Zaius any more unreal than the cowboys Prince originally re-photographed?

Frances Farmer, Sheryl Lee and Sharon Tate. Three black-and-white photos. Prince's accompanying text reads: '1. Francis Farmer (committed) this one with rare signature 2. Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (the dead girl), this one signed, inscribed, and dated "To R. Prince, almost, 9/4/93" (Sheryl Lee briefly dated R. Prince in '93, thus the "almost") 3. Sharon Tate (murdered) this one simply signed "To Dennis - Sharon". The "Dennis" in this case is presumably Dennis Wilson, former drummer of The Beach Boys.'

The Frances Farmer signature in white ink is misspelled. Faked, silkscreened, the reverberations of the misplaced 'i' make the 'autograph' infinitely sadder because such forgery signifies the biographical actuality of someone else's having committed (then raped and lobotomized) her since Farmer never signed her own name to legalize such evisceration. I mean, of course, 'infinitely sadder' only if anyone notices. I don't know if Richard Prince was involved with Sheryl Lee, perhaps he was. He's a foxy dude, but the 'almost' is the 'almost' of how any actress 'almost' is who she plays; the 'almost' of how reality is operating in this work. Somehow Sharon Tate's signature seems authentic, but this is utter conjecture. Farmer and Tate look in the same direction; Lee looks another way. Does Lee look in the opposite direction because she only played dead but isn't yet? A meditation on the noir life of fame, the relation between someone's career being dead and someone actually being dead, on the dream logic which links these three blondes, it is as ruthless a piece as it is mournful. Has-been: committed; murdered; dead.

If many of the pieces refer to and even repeat thematics, devices and formal arrangements of earlier Prince work, the publicity work allows him to renegotiate the pubescent soft-porn picture of Brooke Shields which he presented as Spiritual America in 1983. Prince's new works traffic in a very particular kind of star status, in a very particular type of fame. Marilyn Monroe stills or head-shots aren't used; neither are Elizabeth Taylor or Tom Cruise. Joey Heatherton doesn't appear in any of the new works, but she could. Playboy bunny Helena Antonaccio (who does appear) might as well be Joey Heatherton, Joey Helena. 1960s 'It' girls who never really were it. What there was of Joey's career faded after her Dallas Cowboy husband was found guilty of indecent exposure. Existence is an indecent exposure. Fame throws a spotlight on it. Almost famous, old, post-famous, famous for porn, famous on TV but not in movies, used-to-be famous, has-been ...

The Dukes of Hazzard was one of the most popular shows on television, no one would have mistaken John Schneider for Three's Company star John Ritter. Who is more famous now - Ritter or Schneider? And do you notice and do you care? (This may be the point.)

The Dukes of Hazzard photos are juxtaposed with Pamela Anderson Lee, telling Prince to keep the 'peddle to the metal', and 'Mad Max'; is it the concept of driving or owning the road which links the photos? Or is it the difference between being number one or a zero - as represented by the number on the Dukes' car. In terms of threesomes, three-ways, how do the three lead stars of The Dukes ... (Tom Wopat, John Schneider and Catherine Bach) map or comment upon the three stars of Three's Company (Suzanne Somers, John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt)? Because any of these roles could be played by other actors, what if the casts were switched?

Consider that the Dukes' bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger, General Lee, has as much personality and is as memorable as anyone in either cast. Three 'primitive' drawings of monsters are placed above a picture of Courtney Love. Keanu Reeves drew them for her in 1996. They're signed and dated by him. They were portraits of Kurt he made for Courtney when she was feeling blue and needed cheering up. Keanu got her the waitress part in Feeling Minnesota in a similar act of kindness.

Instead of leaving a will, Kurt Cobain drew the monsters right before he shot himself. Prince's son drew the creatures when Courtney was his babysitter. They're portraits of her, what she looked like before she had plastic surgery. Did you see the episode of ER when they used actual footage from one of her operations? Guy Pearce guest-starred as her plastic surgeon.