Filthy Rat is a pretty nasty title for an exhibition. Especially for a show like this one, which obliquely pays homage to two recently deceased artists: Mike Kelley and Franz West. In keeping with his practice, Stephen Prina reconsiders here his existing works to give them new meanings and adds new installments to his series. Taking a rigid and reductive formalist approach, he sets up a firework of perplexing references. It should come as no surprise that the homage in this exhibition, curated by José Luis Blondet, is not immediately evident.
Five narrow strips of fabric were hanging in the main room; each strip was about five metres long, made in the material used for roll-up blinds and outfitted with the standard fittings for hanging blinds. Three strips are called Blind No. 20, Seventeen-foot high Ceiling or Lower, Historical Van Dyke Brown, Historical Veridian Green, Indian Yellow Hue, Hansa Yellow Medium (to Mike Kelley). The other two strips are Blind No. 21, Seventeen-foot high Ceiling or Lower, Pyrrole Orange, Vat Orange (to Franz West) (2012). All five are painted with the same repetitive brushstroke, in the colours mentioned in their titles. For West, Prina made a diptych in dual orange tones; for Kelley, a partially staggered triptych in brown, green and yellow. The consecutive numbers in the titles – 20 and 21 – indicate that the works are part of a larger, on-going series.
Marino Formenti, Wien, AT (2012) – a carpet in the shape of a concert piano – was half hidden under the West blinds and brought the eponymous Italian pianist into the game of references. For PUSH COMES TO LOVE (1999–2012), Prina spraypainted a black spot on one of the West blinds and let the excess paint drip onto the carpet beneath, thus forging a novel link between West and Formenti. Push Comes To Love is also the title of Prina’s album from 1999 and thus refers to the artist’s own relationship to music. And music connects Prina with Kelley, an active member in a number of bands, like Destroy All Monsters or The Poetics. In this constellation, things start to feel right, only because Prina has written himself into the story.
The other two clusters of works use a different logic of reference. Haberdashery (2002) is comprised of two jewellery boxes, both inscribed with a dedication to Claes Oldenburg but sporting different messages: ‘THE WAY HE ALWAYS WANTED IT’ and ‘U.S. OUT OF THE MIDDLE EAST’. These phrases – in Bengali and Nepalese, respectively – are engraved on the cuff-links inside the boxes and repeated in the logo of the translation firm, which is also imprinted under the lids. For the series Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet (1988–ongoing), Prina is creating reproductions of all known Manet paintings; Prina either paints them as monochrome works on paper as large as the originals, or he creates their outlines with a cord on the wall. His work both plays with the arbitrariness of the sign and functions as a sign of absence – even when he is isn’t offering a homage to the dead.
This exhibition seemed balanced on a tightrope. On the one hand, Prina indiscriminately absorbs different kinds of reference into his disciplined formalism. In light of the loss of two artist colleagues, his gesture felt strangely rigid, like a routine with little empathy. On the other hand, by sticking to his routine, Prina quietly and casually paid tribute in an unobtrusive way, which was ultimately convincing. And done in such a matter-of-fact manner that it was – in the end – beautiful.
Translated by Dominic Eichler