March 23, 2008

Prince of Thieves

It is doubtful that Richard Prince even cares what critic Eleanor Heartney wrote about his Guggenheim Museum retrospective in her Art in America essay. The Prince brand is tried and true in the annals of postmodernist culture and one more fey dismissal of his output is easily deflected by the reams of text in various critical studies, analyses and dissertations devoted to his importance to contemporary art.

That said, I write with the wary recognition that even though Prince is generally regarded as a “Leviathan” in the blue-chip art market his motives are still misunderstood and misrepresented in major art world publications.

As example, I cite Heartney’s approach to the Girlfriends series (appropriated photos from biker magazines purportedly sent in by the biker boyfriends) as an “either/or” proposition that presents Prince as either sleazy shyster or POMO poster boy:

“In their revelation of the squalid side of biker culture, do they offer grist for meditations on the psychology of self-exploitation, or do they allow us to indulge in voyeurism without guilt? Should we enjoy them for their social commentary or for their sleaze?”(1)

This view not only belittles Prince’s work but misses the essence of its postmodernity. The Girlfriends series skirts the high-low culture chasm with such a clear disdain for oppositionality that it seems redundant to address it. Obviously, Prince rejects the easy subjective judgments of art and calls for a multiplicity of readings.(2)

Heartney apparently prefers a simpler time before the insights of Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and Michel Foucault, that pre-poststructuralist era fraught with simple binary opposites and “judgments of taste.” But we have come out of that “French turn” and are well past views of art and artists as things that can be “pinned down.” This is disappointing to Heartney who would prefer that Prince reflect an American art that is not “a complicated dance between ironic distance and the open embrace of images, social constructions and genres generally deemed retrograde or politically incorrect.”(3)

Prince’s sin seems to be that he does this dance quite well. He is like a chameleon on a sun-baked hood of a GTO, at once enamored and perhaps a little afraid of the sexualized biker girls, sadomasochist nurses and homo-eroticized Marlboro men that he partners with. Sexist? Of course. “Deconstructing the culture’s representations of these attitudes?”(4) Definitely. Why can’t he engage both the codification of desire and critique it in one and the same image?

And Heartney is not content to bash only Prince.(5) She wants to get at the intelligentsia, the “highbrows” who promote this kind of difficult artwork that critiques not only our social construction but our obsolete ways of reviewing it:

“A possible reason for Prince’s ascendancy is that highbrow intellectualism goes down more easily when the subject matter is tinged with kinkiness. An air of coolness and irony, especially marked in the photo-based works, allows audiences to indulge in disreputable imagery while maintaining a certain social and psychic distance.”(6)

Oddly, it is just this kind of “coolness” that Heartney needs to approach an artist of Prince’s magnitude. The critic of contemporary art needs to reject simple binary oppositions, judgments of taste and the “either/or” mind-set and learn to view the art “while maintaining a certain social and psychic distance.”

Image: UNTITLED (GIRLFRIEND), 1993, © Copyright by Richard Prince.


1. Heartney, Eleanor. “The Strategist,” Art in America, March 2008, 151.

2. The Guggenheim’s text referencing Girlfriends inaccurately suggests that the biker models “fall painfully short of the centerfolds they seek to imitate” and fail in “capturing an erotic frisson.” This is certainly not the case as Prince’s “choice” of which biker girls to appropriate clearly accentuates their novice eroticism.

3. Op. cit., 146.

4. Ibid., 146

5. See also Adrian Piper’s Letter to the Editor, Art in America, January 2002. Conceptual artist Adrian Piper, “writing to correct some of the factual mistakes in Eleanor Heartney's review of my work,” criticized “Heartney’s judgment” and further stated: “As a rule, Heartney's reports on my motives for doing my work are mistaken.”

6. Op. cit., 150

March 19, 2008

Black/White Talk

Recently, I joined Dorothea Dietrich and Reuben Breslar in discussion about Reuben's "Black/White" show at The Athenaeum. We now have audio of our talk here.

March 12, 2008


It was 53 years ago that Charlie Parker died (ostensibly from pneumonia but more than likely from years of alcohol and drug abuse) while famously watching television. Legend has it that at the moment he passed, a tremendous thunder-clap could be heard in the skies over New York City. Also legendarily, the doctor who attended to Bird’s lifeless body estimated his age to be between 50 and 60 years old. Parker was actually only 34 - he would have been 87 this year.

What more can be said about Bird? The fluidity of his saxophone lines, the blisteringly fast solos, the pure inspiration he called on to challenge himself to increasingly complex improvisations, often on songs played many, many times before – all part of the lore of bebop.

Yet perhaps not enough has been said about his truly unique and gifted way of “borrowing” from existing chord structures to create new tunes. Several songs that Parker wrote are “based on” the chordal changes of other jazz or pop standards, like Bird’s Nest, Chasin' the Bird, Cheers, Constellation, Dexterity, Moose the Mooche, Passport and Red Cross, all inspired by Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.(1) It was aural appropriation, or a re-contexualization of existing source material as "something new." Jazz musicians often play what is referred to as the “head” (the main melody) at the beginning of the piece to establish chord progressions. The "head" then provides the “jumping off” point for improvisations based on the melody. Yet Parker’s genius was to improvise on the chords themselves, to find an alternate chording structure that worked within the pattern itself:

“Rather than basing his improvisations closely on the melody as was done in swing, he was a master of chordal improvising, creating new melodies that were based on the structure of a song. In fact, Bird wrote several future standards (such as ‘Anthropology,’ ‘Ornithology,’ ‘Scrapple from the Apple,’ and ‘Ko Ko,’ along with such blues numbers as ‘Now's the Time’ and ‘Parker's Mood’) that ‘borrowed’ and modernized the chord structures of older tunes.”(2)

This citation of previous song structures to make new compositions is reliant on the listener’s memory yet the new melodies achieve a transcendence from the original. To the informed listener, these chords are vaguely familiar yet feel new. Hearing these “borrowings” instills a faint recognition of the original source but the musical presence of “now” washes over you with insistent beauty.

They were creating a new sound with new structures, and they began to close ranks. The new rules were rough on the old-timers. Drummer Kenny Clarke recalls:

“To make things tough for outsiders we invented difficult riffs. Some of our tunes used the ‘A’ part of one tune, like ‘I Got Rhythm,’ but the channel [bridge] came from something else, say ‘Honeysuckle Rose.’ The swing guys would be completely hung up in the channel. They’d have to stop playing.”(3)

[Charlie Parker songs and Hot House (on film).]




3. Russell, Ross. Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, New York, 1973, 139.

March 7, 2008

What You Do With It

The vulnerability of the art object is once again an issue. Harking back to the halcyon days of the late ‘60s and the “dematerialization” of the object, a current concern in art practice is whether or not an object can be both design-oriented (like commodity-status furniture - see Citizen:Citizen - or lamps – see Jorge Pardo - and therefore absolved of tough theoretical inquisitions) and still be “fine art.” One postconceptual view of the object, with a history that is easily traceable back to Bernar Vent, Alison Knowles, Lawrence Weiner and Mel Bochner, is the idea that a condition of indeterminacy resides in and around the object as a “site” and that validation of the object as “art” comes from other extraneous contexts.

Various artists and curatorial practices have surfaced that elicit questions of the latent ability of an art object to contain any value, including but not limited to “use value” and “exhibition value.” Akemi Maegawa’s work, particularly her Size Matters series, raises the possible “invisible” nature of value attribution and cultural validation of the object. The Size Matters series introduces a duality of supplement and object. What this creates is a duality of validation, a duality based on two seemingly paired but possibly opposed contextual sites. The unbalanced juxtaposition of the supplementary material, as out-sized, “wall label” text designating media, dimensions, etc., and the “artwork” itself become dual points of contextuality. The individual works are identical in presentation and scaling and clearly privilege the supplementary material, as the objects in question (miniscule penis, breast, Hummer, house and hamburger) become secondary to our focus on the gigantic wall label, featuring further bold-faced attention on Maegawa’s name perhaps commenting on the hype of “celebrity” artists.

[While we are on supplementary material, I disagree with a fundamentally flawed perception of Marcel Duchamp in the essay that accompanies Maegawa’s show. Duchamp is referred to as a maker of “works that critiqued the role of the gallery space and relied on ‘non-art’ materials or found objects that resisted easy accommodation as art objects.”(1) Scholarly research on Duchamp’s readymades substantiates how they differ radically from “found objects:”

“The found object shares with the readymade a lack of obvious aesthetic quality and little intervention on the part of the artist beyond putting the object in circulation, but in almost every other respect it is dissimilar. The difference is attributable to Breton’s positioning of the found object in a different space – the space of the unconscious”(2)]

Clearly conceptualism questioned the very nature of how value was attributed to the precious “commodity object” and if we learned anything from conceptual art history it would be the understanding that it is no longer necessary to insist that artistic value lies solely within the objects of art. We need the supplementary material of art theory or supplemental views on the “site” of art and its relevance to both art's value and putative meaning. To approach art making within these contexts produces successful postconceptual views and practice.

Maegawa creates a dual positioning of contextual validation not equal but focusing attention on both the status and visibility involved with a gallery’s promotion of an artist and also the reduced importance and telescopic tendency of the art object to manifest in ever smaller increments of visibility. It is no coincidence also that Maegawa’s show is titled Invisible, Inc. as “successful” art marketing incorporates these kinds of “invisible” concepts within its ever-diligent and over-mediated manipulation.

Far from being a throwaway cliché, the phrase “size matters” bears a genuine relationship to Maegawa’s successful continuance of conceptual art. Perhaps size itself does not matter but the concept does as it is “what you do with it” that really counts - how conceptual art theories are utilized and how they might grow and develop not only the validation of art but also develop and value the artist.

[Invisible, Inc. continues at Irvine Contemporary through March 29, 2008.]

Image: © Copyright 2008 by Akemi Maegawa.

1. Teague, Benjamin. “Akemi Maegawa: Invisible, Inc.,” essay for the exhibition at Irvine Contemporary, 2008.

2. Iversen, Margaret. “Readymade, Found Object, Photograph,” Art Journal, Summer 2004, 48.

March 3, 2008

Sham or Success?

“The continued expansion of a globalized digital network is redefining the postconceptual period. It fosters an invasive, but loved stream of super-saturated stimulation that one must learn to live with. The sheer amount of options available to anyone, anytime, has stripped ideas and objects of any proprietary qualities they once may have had. This model suggests that the increased scale in which we interact with the world presents an ethical dilemma for artists. Applied to how one defines art, as either a 'sham or a success,' I suggest that the new form of digital existence has nullified this type of judgment all together . . .

The overstimulation and assault to the psyche of an individual manifests on many levels. By default a person absorbs so much more information than in previous epochs. To provoke shock, stun, confuse, bewilder, or to make one think in the 21st century is increasingly difficult. The atmosphere of our ever expanding and increasingly skeptical community is formed by a cumulative series of world events. With so much stuff happening around us, how is it even possible to determine something as good or bad? While the art world may exist detached from the before mentioned socio-political narrative, history says that the practice of art making will reinvent itself according to these trends . . .

Outside of academic exercise, the objective survey of postconceptualist art theory is a tortuous, contradictory, and little more than semantic dialog which returns overwhelmingly ambivalent results. The advancement of postconceptualist theory and beyond might mean abandoning notions of sham and success all together and reevaluating diluted ethical topics, in turn allowing the constant de /re-generative process that is the art historical continuum a period of passivity and non-critique.”

Excerpt from a project by Nicholas Donnelly (Corcoran '09) currently in development for Theory Now: Postconceptualism.

Image © Copyright 1990 by Bruce Nauman.