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Richard Prince: New Portraits consists of 37 of the artist’s so-called “Instagram paintings,” each of which, if we’re to believe an anonymous source of the New York Post, are selling for around $100,000. The series, which includes photographs of celebrities such as Kate Moss, Pamela Anderson, Elizabeth Jagger, and Sky Ferreira, feels cheap and underwhelming.
For each work, Prince has commented on somebody else’s Instagram post, taken a screenshot, and then printed the post onto canvas. Many of his comments incorporate sexual innuendos, questions, or ambiguous gibberish. Some consist entirely of emojis. His strategy is familiarly Duchampian. Find an existing Instagram post, intervene, and print the result. It’s no coincidence that the artist’s chosen subjects are celebrities, bloggers, and internet “personalities,” all of whom rely on the power of imagery to market both themselves and their apparent lifestyles.
Tiernan Morgan, “Richard Prince’s ‘Untitled (Portrait)’ 2014, inkjet on canvas, appropriated from @niinhellhound” (2014)
The core theme of Prince’s practice is that all images are lies, fabrications that purport to express a particular reality. “Most of what’s happening that passes for information is total fiction,” the artist stated in a 1985 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “ … I turn the lie back on itself.” Prince has thus turned his attention to social media, the virtual echo chamber of narcissistic presentation and self-invention. The artist, an enthusiastic user of both Twitter and Instagram, has often been censured for posting sexually explicit material. In one incident, the artist was temporally banned from Instagram after posting a photograph of his most notorious work, “Spiritual America” (1983), a nude photograph of Brooke Shields taken when she was ten years old.
Prince’s piece was a “rephotograph,” made from a print produced by photographer Garry Gross. Prince chose the title “Spiritual America” in reference to a 1923 Alfred Stieglitz photograph of the same name, a close up of a castrated horse. Prince thus re-contexualized Gross’s image, shifting the (woefully offensive) image’s original purpose as a modeling shot, to a comment on America’s conflicted attitudes towards fantasy, sexuality, and desire. Prince did the same with his renowned Cowboy series, rephotographs made after Marlboro Man advertisements. Stripped of the cigarette brand’s logo and copy, Prince’s images emphasized Marlboro’s aesthetic exploitation of the idyllic American landscape, and the mythical figure of the rugged cowboy. These early works of appropriation have been accepted into the art historical canon, largely because they’re understood to have substantially re-contextualized existing material.
By comparison, Prince’s latest appropriations don’t have much to say. His Instagram comments are designed to function as an artist’s signature, a minimal intervention that qualifies the work for “transformative” use. It’s a smug sleight-of-hand trick. It might make for an amusing exercise, but it doesn’t translate as great art.
Tiernan Morgan, “Richard Prince’s ‘Untitled (Portrait)’ 2014, inkjet on canvas, appropriated from @rastajay92” (2014)
The show’s confluence of blue chip success, big brand money, and juvenile contempt for copyright imbues New Portraits with a dour, repugnant air. One gets the impression that the Cariou v. Prince legal saga has embittered Prince, perhaps even endowed his latest work with a fanatical zeal. “Look what I can do,” the show declares, “and I get away with it too.” This suspicion is compounded by the show’s absurd press release, which contains a single statement:
All images are subject to copyright. Gallery approval must be granted prior to reproduction.
This is in stark, calculated contrast to the press statement that accompanied Prince’s last Gagosian show, Canal Zone (May 8–June 14, 2014), a thinly veiled, 1,300 word narrative rant critiquing Patrick Cariou.
Prince has historically been fascinated by constructed personas, so it’s impossible to take his statements (or lack of them) at face value. In 1985, ZG magazine published a 1967 interview between Prince and the author J.G. Ballard. It was a hoax. Regardless, a number of publications parroted Prince’s biographical falsehoods for years. Prince also contended that Douglas Crimp had invited him to be part of his seminal Pictures exhibition (1977), another falsehood he eventually confessed to. Part of Prince’s strategy is the undermining of perceived meaning, and this extends to our perception of other people. The picture of Prince that I’ve built up based upon his work and online presence (a middle aged man fixated upon nubile youth?), might be off base, though it may also be couched in truth.
Instagram is an ideal fit for Prince’s interests. The paintings mostly consist of sexy young people effortlessly exuding cool, or at least, that’s what we’re meant to perceive. Social media is a flickering hall of mirrors, where nothing is what it seems, and the gulf between appearances and reality is stretched and distorted. The dark, polished floors of Gagosian’s space complements this notion perfectly, the reflections of the works distorted and warped.
Tiernan Morgan, “Installation view of Richard Prince’s New Portraits, appropriated from @annaballins and @nightcoregirl” (2014)
Some of the Instagram images are clearly the result of elaborate fashion shoots (Elizabeth Jagger, Sky Ferreira) whilst others were cheaply produced with mobile phones. Prince’s repetitive arrangement levels any distinction, since all the photographs require a degree of artifice and construction. At least two of the Instagram posts are unofficial fan accounts (@katem0ss, @katemossofficial page), a reminder that online, people aren’t always who they appear to be. One of Prince’s subjects, Karley Sciortino, a blogger and sex columnist for Vice magazine, describes her own website as “a blog, intended to trick strangers into thinking my life is more exciting than it actually is,” a comment which aptly summarizes Prince’s interest in youth subcultures and styles.
In a short interview with Dis Magazine, artist Deanna Havas remarked that the “fictionalized aspect and photographic style” of Prince’s chosen Instagrams reminded her of “mid-2000 era advertorials.” Though she doesn’t use the phrase, Havas alludes to the recognizable hipster aesthetic exemplified by the work of photographers such as Terry Richardson and commercialized by companies such as American Apparel and Vice; “sexualized, voyeuristic, very ambiguous and kind of misogynist.” It’s worth noting that a number of the individuals included in the exhibition have been snapped by Richardson (they appear to all be women; Anderson, Ferreira, Jagger, Moss, Sciortino, Jessica Hart, and Asia Argento. The one man I could find, Glenn O’Brien, appears to have posed with Richardson, but not for him). The images that appeal to Prince exude this aesthetic; panty shots, toplessness, and fetishized nubility.
Douglas Haddow’s 2008 article on the hipster emphasized the culture’s incessant need to repackage, recycle, and reappropriate the styles of previous eras:
Unable to create any new meaning … the hipster is a consumer group — using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion … In the end, hipsters are sold what they think they invent and are spoon-fed their pre-packaged cultural livelihood.
These characteristics could easily apply to social media, a tool whose monetization propagates consumer ads, advertorials, sensationalism, clicks, likes, and a constant glut of recycled and repacked content. Why are we so quick so surrender our personal content to global corporations, or in this case, to appropriation artists such as Richard Prince? (I wonder if any of the artist’s subjects protested at their inclusion?) The hipster perfectly chimes with the artist’s nihilistic persona. Prince watches his chosen subjects as they market themselves, appropriating the styles and fashions of others, and then he trumps them at their own game. Prince merely adds his own signature and steals a part of them for himself, an act of monetization that most Silicon Valley CEOs can only dream about. His strategy has a certain logic that could be described as shrewd or clever, but is ultimately depressing. The exhibition reminded me of a 1994 essay by the research analyst and writer Carmen Hermosillo, who recognized the implications of a corporate-oriented internet, years before the term “social media” was coined:
I have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and I did so myself until, at last, I began to see that I had commodified myself … I created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board I was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. That means that I sold my soul like a tennis shoe and I derived no profit from the sale of my soul.
I wonder whether Prince views his work as operating outside the boundaries of this process (as a so-called ‘neutral’, artistic observer) or as an exemplar of it. I would suggest that the former is an impossibility.
New Portraits presents a superficial synthesis of Prince’s chief concerns: appropriation, artifice, the social engineering of style, and the commodification of individuality. Its boastful, gloating tone is completely dispiriting. Prince hasn’t done anything particularly compelling with his chosen material; rather, he has used Instagram as a crutch to prop up his existing interests. New Portraits is neither clever nor original. It’s naked profiteering masquerading as “high art.” Of course, to react negatively to Prince’s work is to take his bait. Douglas Eklund, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984 (2009), remarked in the show’s catalogue that “[appropriation] rivals in effect and inspires a perhaps even deeper revulsion and contempt than the most perverse of pornographic transgressions.” He goes on to say that appropriation artists “take pleasure from the visceral reactions that their thefts provoke.” Richard Prince’s appetite for reaction remains undiminished, though in this instance, the product of his labors are not only repellant, but tedious too.
Richard Prince: New Portraits continues at Gagosian Gallery (976 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 25.