BY Dominic Eichler in Features | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Point Counter Point

Stephen Prina’s installations, performances and objects are characterized by their rich layers of reference and discursive discordance

BY Dominic Eichler in Features | 05 MAY 09

Years ago in Aurora, Illinois, on an excursion with a friend, Stephen Prina had a revelation. The two had been to see the Ruth Ford House (1947) designed by visionary architect Bruce Goff (1904–82), and Prina realized that this experimental home ‘is a serious proposal about living life in a different way, and, submitting to a formalist impulse’, in purely filmic terms, the house is ‘screaming out for semi-circular tracking shots.’1 Things take time, and it was only recently that Prina premiered his beguiling homage – the 35mm film The Way He Always Wanted It II (2008). Its inspiration and setting, Goff’s progressive pod-like dwelling, is a shining example of under-appreciated, renegade, organic Modernism. It features unorthodox forms and combinations of materials including a shingle roof and walls made of rough-hewn coal stones, interspersed with big chunks of emerald green slag-glass. The interior unfolds like a carefully vivisected nautilus shell. According to Prina, until the age of 30, child prodigy Goff had been ‘an architect, painter and composer, at which time he decided there were fewer great modern architects than composers, thus, a poor boy such as he would have a better chance to make his mark as an architect. He never composed again.’2

A Structural Analysis and Reconstruction of MS7098 as Determined by the Difference Between the Measurements of Duration and Displacement, 1980-90, installation view, American Fine Arts, New York, 1990. Courtesy: Friedrich Petzel, New York

Knowing of Prina’s interest in architecture and music generates certain parallels with Goff’s life choices, although by the 1970s Prina’s focus had already veered decidedly in favour of visual art. His meditative, semi-documentary film takes this into account, coming full circle as the camera tracks pensively around the ground-floor of the house. The changing textures of the interior, furniture, books and objects (such as a water jug and architectural models), and the altering depths of field and focal lengths create a sense of shifting scenes without much actual editing. Crucially, truncated views of film technicians at work and performing musicians – including Prina himself singing – float in and out of the frame. Prina based the soundtrack on Goff’s abandoned compositions and correspondence with a friend (including lyrics like: ‘spitting blood into an enamel basin’). All this makes the film a kind of document not only of the house, but also of the film’s own making and indeed a serious celluloid monument to a richly thoughtful and cultured life.

The ostensible subject of Stephen Prina's work is the ways the work of others is culturally contextualized, though importantly, and sometimes literally, Prina's own voice emerges in their midst.

Thinking back on his own conceptual beginnings, Prina remarked in a recent interview: ‘By the time I was a conscious being making art, conceptual art was already historical. […] It was already being suggested that conceptual art was a kind of culmination. […] I sensed these things deeply as a young artist. I thought, well then, what is there to do in the face of that?’3 This moment of questioning and revelation occurred while he was a student at CalArts working on, amongst other things, what would become The Structural Analysis and Reconstruction of MS7098 as Determined by the Measurements of Duration and Displacement (1980–90). This work involves an examination of pianist Glenn Gould’s recording of Arnold Schönberg’s music for solo piano. Prina reworked and then re-pressed the LP taking his compositional cue from the space between the tracks of the original, by repositioning 21 seconds of silence in Gould’s recording. A reconstituted arrangement of the work dating from 1990, and shown in the late Colin De Land’s gallery American Fine Arts in New York, consisted of a small maplewood table, a couple of chairs, a promotional poster (marketing Gould as a sexy, brooding genius), and headphones attached to a record player. I can now confess to not sitting and listening to the entire LP at the time, perhaps daunted by the setting, the idea of becoming a part of the display and the reliquary nature of the work. But the lean manifestation and open-ended idea of the work lingered. To me, much of the conceptual-crossover and interdisciplinary art-and-music work generated in the 1990s pales in comparison.

Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet 135 of 156, L'Execution de Maximilien de Mexique III (The Execution of Maximilian of Mexico III), 1867, Kunsthalle Mannheim, September 30 1990, ink on paper and lithography on paper, 252x305 cm, 66x83 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

It’s not hard to see this early work as containing many of the ideas regarding reference and appropriation that characterize Prina’s work to the present day. Packed with quotations and citations, the key hallmark of his approach is the meticulous superimpositions of art and culture from various historical periods, media and disciplines. Regardless of each particular work’s guise and form (including paintings, installations, photography, graphic works, films and performances), they all seem to concern the articulation of the resulting resonances and multiple overtones of difference in a contextual flux. The ostensible subject of Prina’s work is the ways the work of others is culturally contextualized, though importantly and sometimes literally, Prina’s own voice emerges in their midst. Take, for example, the 21 minute, 16mm film Vinyl II (2000), which comprises a long zoom out, a tracking shot and a pan between two Baroque paintings in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, one depicting Christ and the other a group of revelling musicians. Along the way a string quartet and a horn play a Prina composition and in a kind of double take the artist appears in a red jumpsuit singing a pop ode to the paintings. For Prina, the artist is a researcher, expert viewer, fan, performer and at times, an incorrigible multi-tasker.

It’s incredibly easy for a viewer or writer to get entangled and disorientated in the rich layers of reference and discursive discordance that occur in any single work of Prina’s, let alone his exhibitions. This fact was perhaps acknowledged indirectly when he once titled a series of exhibitions ‘Retrospection Under Duress’ (1996). Reoccurring touchstones include, for example: author Heinrich Böll, filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, philosophers Roland Barthes and Theodor W. Adorno, artists such as Dan Flavin, Joseph Kosuth, Edouard Manet, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Weiner, Marcel Broodthaers, Andrea Fraser, Ed Ruscha, Ad Reinhardt, as well as composers and bands such as Anton Webern, Steely Dan and Sonic Youth, amongst many others. That said, often Prina’s own work typically operates at one or more steps removed, or has an obtuse connection to what he references.

The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex, 2005-7, mixed media, installation view. Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Viewers are asked to do much more than look; they have a clear and telling choice whether or not to peel back the layers of his multidisciplinary artistic research. To take on this challenge is to instigate a kind of mental vibration or oscillation asking you to summon up something else (such as other art, a film, a text, music or all of these), in the presence of something different. This is very much the case in the extraordinarily refined series 'Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet' (1988–ongoing). Each of the projected 556 works in the series consists of two parts: a lithograph giving a tabulated overview of Manet’s oeuvre taken from an apparently flawed catalogue raisonné, paired with a sepia or tanned-hide coloured ink wash on rag ‘barrier’ paper, the same size as the retrospective Manet painting. Each of the work’s titles refers to that specific painting and its location. Prina chose Manet’s ‘body of work’ because as he noted: ‘Manet is often considered the first modernist artist. Michel Foucault said that he was the first museum artist, meaning that Manet’s work takes as a point of departure that it is always already inscribed in the museum, that its placement within it is preordained, and Manet has rendered this condition explicit in his work.’4

The series is formally enticing and gratifying. The rhythm and subtle variations in each of the abstract washes, which read both like a performative erasure and a Modernist assertion of presence, iconoclastically hold their ground next to the Manet paintings to which only their scale refers; at the same time, they transform the ‘body of work’ into a series, picking up – as is often the case with Prina – a set of fixed points from the past and moving forward. His difficult ongoing affair with abstract painting – he never could quite abandon the canvas completely – is also evidenced in works such as The Painter’s Studio, Real Allegory, Resolving a Phase of 153 Years in My Artistic Life: A, No.1 (2001), an off-white screen-printed canvas bearing the initials ‘SJP’.

The most consistent debate around Stephen Prina's work positions his as a practitioner of a subtle form of institutional critique.

To arrive at any given work Prina obsessively frames and reframes his engagement with culture. For example, the title of the Goff film – just like its predecessor Vinyl II, which in name, but not in nature, winks at Andy Warhol’s Vinyl (1965) – declares it is a sequel. But actually, The Way He Always Wanted It I remains as yet unrealized even while III and IV are in production. Back in the late 1970s, Prina had intended to create a sound piece related to Arnold Schönberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19 (1911). Apparently Schönberg wanted to make time and space collapse in his music, a typically hardcore modernist aim which Prina apparently thought the composer hadn’t entirely achieved. The planned work involved playing all six pieces simultaneously on 1081 loud-speakers (one for each note in the Opus), arranged in concentric circles, in an attempt to create an abstract and singular cacophony, i.e. to finally get something close to what Arnold always wanted.

Since the 1980s, Prina’s work has been discussed as ‘impure’ post-Conceptualism5 in terms of its deconstructive and playful approach to cultural meaning, signifiers and signs, art and language; its revisiting of Modernity and painting’s endgame; and its self-conscious anti-authorship. In addition, the reception of his various works involving pop music such as The Top Thirteen Singles from Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart for the Week Ending September 11, 1993 (1993), a clock that happily chimes out hits on the hour – fed into a discussion of ‘high and low’ cultural forms and many possible hybrids thereof. Arguably the most consistent debate around his work positions him as a practitioner of a subtle form of institutional critique. His exhibition making can be seen as a kind of overarching work itself. Certainly, his fastidious and almost exaggerated attention to framing, labelling, forms of display, presentation and cataloguing seem to approach institutional parody without being overtly didactic. Prina obviously enjoys formality – perhaps better thought of as an art work’s form of address – but at the same time, he is keenly aware of its function in the construction of ‘importance’.

Stephen Prina performing at Landmark, Bergen Kunsthalle, 2009. Courtesy: Morgan Kvamme

Take for instance, his most recent, three-part series of installations, the second of which was The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex (2005–7). Each of the three, pastel colour-coded works in the series is a kind of mobile, musical installation: ‘conceived as a travelling spectacle — a mini-Broadway-musical-on-the-road or circus.’6 The works’ crates are used as viewing benches. Their contents include painted cushions, matching carpet squares (that have the footprints left by visitors at previous venues), and audio equipment. The walls of each new hosting venue are painted in the same shade with wall texts that are different for each work.

The soundtrack is similarly tailored. The Mourning Sex instalment for instance, whose wall text ‘… things Felix forgot to tell us …’ summons the legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is accompanied by guitar textures and a vocal track with cut-and-paste lyrics sung by Prina based on public testimonials to the late artist from people such as Julie Ault and Tim Rollins, including: ‘The second sentence / Of everything I read is you / You’re probably the first person to get / Viewers to put part of a work / In their mouths and suck on it / Oral gratification.’

To the People of Frankfurt am Main: Former Site of Reconstructed Schoenberg Study, Arnold Schoenberg Institute, Room 201, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Reconstructed at Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, 2000 (detail), mixed media, 200x396x396 cm. Courtesy Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, and Bergen Kunsthalle; photograph: Thor Broedreskift

The unapologetically highbrow complications mount even further in Prina’s work because he also adds self-quotation to the mix, thus generating a pearly string of quotes of quotes of quotes. Even when he performs (as he has done since the 1990s) encouraged through his work with the band Red Krayola, his cover versions and conceptual pop songs, dress and stage manner are carefully staged and cross-referenced. That Prina is much more than a competent musician and suave and compelling singer, is evident in his recording Push Comes to Love (1999). His performances – such as the one that took place, on the occasion of his solo show at Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in 2008, at Brenner’s Park Hotel where he emerged onto the stage from a cellar on a catering lift, guitar in hand – are never ironic or unskilled (like so much ‘artist’s music’) but rather, like his other work both framed by ideas, and moving. Aware that his work resists the idea of reductive readings, I asked myself the basic question: what is Stephen Prina’s work about? A possible answer presented itself: perhaps it’s about the ramifications and infinite variations possible when contemporary art is not only about something else but also tantalizingly about ‘about-ness’ itself.

1 Stephen Prina in an email to the author on 22 March 2009.

2 Ibid.

3 Stephen Prina, ‘How far we’ve come from the river, a conversation between Bennett Simpson and Stephen Prina’, in the catalogue ‘The second Sentence of Everything I read is you, Stephen Prina’, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden & Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla, (Walther König, 2008) p. 142

4 Harvard Gazette

5 Coosje van Bruggen, Gewad/Appel Gent, Amsterdam, ‘Jenny Holzer, Stephen Prina, Mark Stahl, Christopher Williams’– ‘round robin’, exhibition catalogue, December 1984, p. 6

6 Todd Allen, Whitney Biennial 2008 website

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.