Brand names. Fighting-fit cowboys. Tawny men with cheeks you could rest highballs on. On the walls of the Walker Art Center, the images in “Richard Prince: Spiritual America” might have an even more profound impact today than they did when they were created during the stagflation generation. After all, his images of 1970s and ’80s ads (rephotographs, he calls them) have been appropriated; they are faces and symbols that have taken on a life of their own as context (and the lack of it) changes their meanings.
In the post-E-boom, music is combined in mash-ups, ideas get linked and
turned into ephemeral phenomena, pop culture is pervasive, and
marketing is viral and even more manipulative than in the Carter era.
People actually YouTube these things. They send them to friends, who
send them to cousins, who send to camp counselors — and suddenly ad
execs are delighted and dough is rolling. Like the concept for Prince’s
artworks, nearly everything these days can take on a life of its own or
get reborn as something else.
Taken from their original context, the images of female faces from glossy ads, or the snapshots of women from the back of biker magazines, become cultural specimens. The ads, which in 1980 were about female aspirations, are turned into truncated photographs (“Untitled: Three women looking in the same direction”). They reveal the ad world’s own appropriation and re-creation of needs and desires, and the shackles such ubiquitous imagery has on a culture.
The provocatively posed biker women, for example, some of them shirtless or open-legged, might be about “freedom” in the back of “Easy Rider,” but Prince’s re-framing of them lays bare that freedom is faint; living up to ideals of others is its own captivity.
Art via cell phones
There’s quite a bit to see in this 30-plus-year retrospective. Prince has the obsessive mind of a collector. His body of work is almost like little collections in themselves: publicity images, advertising, pulp fiction, inscribed jokes from the New Yorker, popular jokes that are a part of the lexicon, and documentary photographs of a life obscured and halted.
One 1990 image from upstate New York is of a basketball hoop in the middle of a field. Weeds engulf the post — or, in other words, life grows around an existing theme, reframing it as something else. The jokes, removed from the stage or New Yorker pages, are transformed into a sort of disturbing reality.
One of the great things about this exhibit is that the Walker is using the “Art on Call” feature for a handful of the works. Abstract expressionists would hate this new-media feature (they believed their artwork should just exist on its own), but this cell-phone audio tour helps make the artwork more accessible. Yes, accessible. (Jackson Pollock just rolled over in his color-splashed grave.)
One of my biggest complaints about the new Walker when it first opened was that it felt like a decades-old museum. The way art was presented hadn’t changed; it still felt intimidating to the new viewer. I wished there were more tools readily available for new art lovers, maybe little kiosks somewhere that served to educate viewers and contextualize the work, making it even more profound.
And now, the “Art on Call” tool allows visitors to simply call a number (only if they choose!) type in a code, and listen to an interview with an artist, expert, curator or historian and immediately get more information on the pieces. With the Richard Prince exhibit, viewers can listen to short snippets (about 20 seconds) of interviews that serve to put the works into context, or give them a new perspective. In other words, it gives the works a life of their own.