My intention is not the meaning of the work. The work only has meaning when it enters the social sphere and meets its audience. That’s where meaning is produced, not in the studio. –Stephen Prina
…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. –Dominic Eichler
The artist Stephen Prina was profiled in the May 2009 issue of Frieze (by Dominic Eichler). This profile brought to mind (& also mentions) Prina’s project: Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet (1988- ). This is an ongoing series that Prina started in 1988 & apparently has been growing ever since. The general idea for the project is that Prina will recreate each of the 556 Édouard Manet paintings, as recorded by a (now obsolete) 1960’s catalogue raisonné. Prina does not recreate the works as direct copies; rather he uses only the actual size & title of the original Manet. Each work in the series is a diptych. One ½ of the diptych contains a “legend” of the whole of Manet’s output, represented by thumbnail outlines of each painting (with a number). This is a monochrome (ivory colored) lithograph printed on white paper (in a black frame, under glass). The “legend” is coupled with Prina’s re-painting. Prina’s re-paintings are painted using an ivory colored ink wash on white paper (black frame, under glass), with no visual reference to the original (the size & title are the only similarity). And so the project continues untill Prina paints the 556th Manet.
I might not be alone when I dare to call this “difficult art.” I have been guilty of wanting to be spoon-fed artwork before. “What does it mean? What’s the point?” The viewer pleads with the artwork to reveal its secrets on the spot. One might believe that this a kind of “stubbornness” on behalf of the art/ist, or that it may be elitist or perhaps intentional. The viewer then possibly turns away, remarking that s/he is “just not getting it.” Of course this might be perceived as a flaw in the artwork: difficult artwork = bad artwork. It should go without saying that this incurious approach is slightly unfair, but we do want to be drawn-in enough to be curious in the first place. It is worth asking: how many other fields of expertise do we walk in on & want to have an immediate understanding ? Do we need to have an understanding of the inner workings of the artwork before we can appreciate it? I argue no, we don’t. However our engagement does have to start on the personal level of liking it enough to begin with. We can simply walk away. Nobody is forcing us to engage the artwork. But, when & if we are seduced enough to start asking questions of the art, what does it reveal? Here is where we want to question it to have a better appreciation. My curiosity with this project of Prina’s starts with the very notion of its difficulty. I like the work because it does present a challenge to understand & to dig deeper than the surface. It is difficult to apprehend; it is enigmatic; and it refers to another artist (art about art).
What is revealed when we look closer at Prina’s series? Stephen Prina is sometimes classified as a conceptualist & he doesn’t shy away from the title either, referring to himself as an “impure-conceptualist.” It’s not completely clear why he uses the term impure. My guess is that the “pure” conceptualists were more language based & his work doesn’t involve itself with language as much. We also know that Prina studied under Michael Asher whose conceptual projects had a lot to do with art as an “institutional critique,” for example when Asher famously emptied a gallery to expose its inner workings.
Once we look under the surface, we start to recognize the halcyon days of conceptual art. With conceptual art the idea was vital; in fact it often took precedence over the visual. Remember that conceptual art was born in the radical 60’s & 70’s. This was not your easy-to-digest-on-a-Sunday-afternoon art world anymore. Don’t forget minimalism (post & otherwise). With minimalism everything was distilled to its essence, the art object itself was threatening to disappear. Yes, it was a severe & austere time. Think severe & austere while looking at Prina’s diptychs & you’ll start to feel like you are “getting it.”
Out of the 70’s & into the 80’s came several offshoots & comminglings of conceptualism/minimalism. One trend was appropriation & another (among many) was institutional critique (or a conceptual critique) as art. Appropriation art questioned authorship, originality & the artist as the sine qua non of originality. Remember Sherrie Levine’s reworking of Walker Evans or Richard Prince’s Marlboro man/cowboys? Prina seems to be playing with appropriation too. For Prina, Manet’s total body of work is the muse & model. The institutional critique had Michael Asher as a forefather, but it also had the great Marcel Broodthaers & Hans Haacke as (just a few) leaders (& precursors) of the “style.” Oddly, or conveniently enough, Hans Haake has used Manet too, but with a different & slightly more radical stance compared to Prina.
After Haake, we have artists like Louise Lawler, Allen McCollum & Susan Hiller. These lists are by no means exhaustive, but should represent some of the artists I feel are linked to Prina’s Exquisite Corpse project. Louise Lawler is a very good example here. Her photographic work has as its main focus: others’ artwork. She is known for photographing art in storage, art in a collector’s home, or art as it is displayed. So here we have a similarity to Prina. Both artists using a collection or archive as the focus. And the two artists have their unique ways of focusing on the archive.
In Prina’s series the Manet archive is the sole subject of inquiry & it is part of its aesthetic. However much Prina has not copied Manet’s visual artistry, the visual memory (of Manet) is still somehow present, resonant & palpable. Another artist I’ll compare to Prina is Susan Hiller. Her works have dealt with the cultural artifact, archiving the unexpected, and finding nuance in the archive. The complete paintings of Manet are cultural artifacts. The artifacts are more than revisited each time Prina “repaints” one.
Allan McCollum is another good comparison because of his Surrogate series. McCollum’s surrogates certainly look a bit like Prina’s Exquisite Corpse. Both are a series, both are (somewhat) monochrome & both, apart from their formal distinctions, appear to be questioning what an artwork is. Is an artwork multiple things at once? Does an artwork have to be a purely visual experience? Or can is be something else, a system, an artifact, an archive, a concept, another artwork altogether?
Remember too that the tradition of an “exquisite corpse” is to create a part of the whole, without knowing what the whole will be, until it’s done. By giving the series this title, Prina may be suggesting that his project is a kind of exquisite corpse game, with him & Manet as the sole contributors, complicated by time & history. Prina’s Exquisite Corpse certainly is a game, but not with the typical rules & not with a predictable outcome. Exquisite Corpse may also refer to Manet’s work more literally. Manet’s body of work is now an “exquisite corpse” to be reexamined, re-tooled, and re-purposed for a 20-21st century audience, after Manet & after Modernism.
Stephen Prina was in the 2008 Whitney Biennial & his bio reads: “With canny clairvoyance, Stephen Prina makes art based on a self-conscious relationship to the past, present, and future. Using a variety of media, his work addresses the afterlife of artworks in art’s distribution channels: its institutions, its market, and its historiography. These shifting sites of art’s post-studio reception—frequently beyond the discharge of artists’ intentions—take center stage in Prina’s production.” After reading this, I realized that it summed-up everything I wanted to conclude with, only better.
Aurelio Madrid was born in 1968. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado. He keeps the blog, luctor et emergo.