from The Guardian UK
Girlz on the hood
Richard Prince has a thing about fast cars, nurses and other supposed male obsessions. Adrian Searle wonders what lies behind all the secondhand jokes and macho excess
Tuesday June 24, 2008
A sculpture installation of a car at the Richard Prince: Continuation exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi
Walking into Richard Prince’s show, the bonnet of a car greets you, like a shark or a maître d’ with perfect American teeth. Every exhibition at the Serpentine gallery in London now has to have a dramatic opening: last time it was a self-portrait by Maria Lassnig, naked and pointing a gun at us, another gun pressed to her temple; Anthony McCall opened his show last year with a projector aimed straight at the door, like a Gatling gun. Such gambits are designed to make us forget the gallery was once just a tea house in Kensington Gardens.
Prince chartered his own flight to London, stacked with work for the Serpentine, and installed the show himself, in record time. But his car isn’t going anywhere – it’s just a fibreglass body set into a chunky cubic block. Surrounding this are further car hoods, hung on the wall like paintings, or the shields of gasoline warriors in a comic-book universe. These, too, appear to have been sculpted from some plaster-like material. Their chevron shapes are inset with cowls and scoops, giving them the air of a certain kind of painted, post-industrial abstract relief I haven’t seen in years.
Never mind that what I’m actually looking at are auto bonnets and custom cowl induction hoods. According to Carhoods.com, where Prince orders these bizarre body parts, they “can be flanged, trimmed and easily welded in place to fit your needs – whether you want to draw more air into your engine, are in need of engine clearance, or yearning for a cool new look”. They could have been manufactured with art in mind.
These objects also appear to have been coloured with loose, brushy paintwork; one might think of early Richard Diebenkorn or Ron Gorchov. Up close, it turns out to be the work of a disk sander and a filler knife. That’s not impasto – that’s Bondo. Instead of Cézanne gone abstract, or a sensitive balancing of directional brushstrokes, we have the tough but tender swagger of the bloke in the garage.
Prince, of course, knows this. It is one of the things his art is dealing with. Nevertheless, works such as Gomper, Hum Bomb and the wonderfully titled No Milk No Butter Since My Cow Left Home have a satisfyingly weighty, chunky feel. The masculinity in Prince’s art is as unavoidable as it is ambiguous.
Prince also expects his audience to be as knowing as he is. (It never does to overestimate the intelligence of the art lover, especially the collecting classes. They say Rothko killed himself because he met the people who bought his art.) Prince has chosen these forms both because he’s a car nut, and because he, too, recognises their resemblance to art. And also, undoubtedly, because the car and the artwork are both commodity fetishes whose place in culture is more than utilitarian. His art often depends on its resemblance to other things – to other art, as well as to its overt references in popular culture. If you hold a mirror to the world, are you responsible for what it reflects?
Lots of artists have worked with cars – from the French artist César to Gustav Metzger, from Sarah Lucas to Gabriel Orozco to Joseph Beuys. There’s another automobile-cum-altar in the centre of another room in this show, and a real Buick 1987 Regal, whose entire body has been covered in a vinyl wrapping of images of hot young babes. Prince is really tripping on the unreconstructed male psyche here, unless, that is, he’s deconstructing it.
Prince has just held a Guggenheim retrospective, of which the Serpentine show is a pared-down continuation (hence the exhibition title). Yet, it is disarmingly accessible and oddly attractive. In the middle of one gallery is a giant garden planter, fashioned from a truck tire and cast in glowing orange resin. You could say that Prince has domesticated his art for London, except that the artist, who lives in depressed, upstate New York, has always liked to see his work in domestic situations: he has bought several countryside properties to work in and house his stuff.
The artist is also an avid collector of books – from Nabokov to pulp, hardboiled crime to Beat poetry – and, in the words of Jack Bankowsky, the Artforum editor-at-large, ” traffics in rumour and refusal”. There is much that remains opaque about Prince’s practice. For ZG magazine in the mid-1980s, Prince invented an interview between himself and JG Ballard, and insinuated that his father did something shady for the CIA down in Panama, where Prince was born.
Elsewhere in this show, there are appropriated photos of biker chicks lounging on motorcycles, their stockings ripped, their chests bared. There’s a recent set of drawings riffing on the style of Willem de Kooning, except the old abstract expressionist only drew women who looked like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, while these are manic androgynes, De Kooning’s swervy charcoal swipes and blurry erasures reduced to a merely competent and mannered style. One figure shows his/her willy, encased in a pair of see-through plastic panties. Prince’s art appears to celebrate trashiness and low-rent style. He has rephotographed Marlboro adverts, keeping the wild west cowboy fantasy and losing the logo and the fags. His art is full of recycled gags; he also has a thing about nurses, whose images fill a concurrent Gagosian gallery show in London’s West End.
Either Prince just lets his obsessions hang out, or he has something to say about the state of American culture – or both. It is too late to be a wide-eyed pop artist. Prince is not just an appropriationist, though he first appeared on the New York scene in the mid-1970s as just that, and as the then partner of Cindy Sherman, for whom success came much more quickly. In the end, Prince’s problem is that he’s just not as good as Bruce Nauman or Matthew Barney, or Sherman at her best. His art knows this and tries to deal with it by way of jokes and excess.
Prince’s nurses stalk the Serpentine as though patrolling the wards on night duty. In their masks, mascara and starched uniforms, they appear both bloodied and predatory. Derived from the covers of pulp novels, Prince photographically reproduces these images on canvas and then overpaints them, giving them the transgressive frisson of medical fetishism. His nurses are more Carry On Matron than Sister Ingrid the Catheter Queen.
Somehow, Richard Prince’s art spurns my critical advances. My excuse is that what Prince does and deals with is just too much a macho guy thing for me. I don’t drive, I have no interest in cars, I’ve never had the fantasy of nailing a nurse on the hood of my Buick or of being picked up by a bare-boobed biker chick riding a throbbing Harley. I even had to have the cultural significance of Brooke Shields, about whom Prince once made an iconic and infamous early work, explained to me. Prince the artist is cool and fashionable, both attributes I have some difficulty keeping up with.
When he copies old New Yorker cartoons and sad stand-up jokes on canvas, stencilling their punchlines or using them to interrupt achingly vacuous fields of colour, he is just compounding one kind of empty gesture with another. “A girl phoned me the other day and said, ‘Come on over, nobody’s home.’ I went over, nobody was home,” reads one canvas. Ba-boom.
Maybe the artist sees himself as the failed comedian, the fall guy in the gag. Or maybe that’s us, his audience. Maybe the art is like the girl on the phone, promising everything, delivering nothing. It’s a joke all right. It’s painful.
· Richard Prince: Continuation is at the Serpentine gallery until September 7. Details: 020-7402 6075.
[ click to read article at Guardian UK ]