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De-Construction Worker : Richard Prince's 'First House' Launches Regen Projects

April 10, 1993|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Anywhere else, this would be a funky bungalow. In West Hollywood, it's a tear-down. But the modest house is enjoying an exotic cultural moment before it becomes a memory. "First House" is the site of Richard Prince's installation of paintings and other works through April 30. It is the inaugural event for Regen Projects, formerly the Stuart Regen Gallery, which has scaled back its operations to fund four special projects a year.

Is this a joke? Well, yes and no. The paintings are jokes. Lettered mostly in black on white, the canvases of various sizes make visitors to the house commit contemporary art heresy--they giggle and guffaw, nudge and wink.

My brother just married a two-headed lady. Is she pretty, you ask? Well, yes and no.

Prince, who lives in New York, got this idea in 1985 after spending four months making art in a rented house in Venice. In West Hollywood, he has approximated aspects of his studio by putting drop cloths on some of the floors and sanding others, stripping the walls down to plaster and wall board and standing cheap flood lamps in the corners. Conventions of an art gallery merge with those of a home. The ambience is intimate yet awkward. Paintings of jokes hang or lean on every wall in aesthetic cacophony. "In a way, it's about display and arrangement," he says.

I don't like to brag but I got good looking kids. Thank God my wife cheated on me.

Seated on a fat roll of canvas on the living-room floor, Prince is dressed, as he often is, in a black suit jacket and white T-shirt. He has a rakish, rock star quality that has earned him a certain notoriety in the worlds of rock music, advertising and film. "If read literally, the jokes are tragic," he admits. "It's a way to cope, to deal with certain realities, absurdities, what I find unbelievable in this world. I don't really have a sense of humor. With my jokes, you are not sure if you should laugh at them or agree with them. Either way, it's a powerful reaction."

A young kid bragged to the judge that he'd shot another kid for a quarter. The judge said, "How can you shoot somebody for a quarter?" The kid replied, "You know how it is Judge. Two bits here, two bits there -- it adds up!"

"These jokes are edgier and more topical than usual," observes Prince. Domesticity is rendered raw from jokes that deal with violence, racism, adultery and ennui. Conceived almost entirely in black and white, the art's references to racial tension are heightened in Los Angeles by anticipation of the verdicts in the Rodney G. King trial.

In the play room, canvases silk-screened with photographs of white boxers are stacked opposite a canvas printed with an image of the Black Panthers. Glass doors open onto the back yard, where the silk-screen of a black boxer is tilted against the garage next to a painting of this joke:

White man: "I don't know what to do, my house has burned to the ground, my wife died, my car was stolen and the doctor says I gotta have a serious operation."

Black man: "What you kickin' about, you white ain't you? "

Prince has not simplified his art to coincide with the cultural politics that are in vogue. Anyone familiar with Prince's art of the last decade will recognize a distillation of ideas concerning the elusive nature of meaning, the question of authorship and the difficulty in separating the private and public selves. He has perfected the aesthetics of repressed anxiety.

Prince achieved acclaim in the 1980s as one of the initial practitioners of the strategy of appropriation in photography. He re-photographed images from advertisements and recontextualized them as early as 1977. He became part of the group that came to be called the "Pictures Generation," after an influential exhibition in New York organized by critic Douglas Crimp. The artists included Sherrie Levine, Troy Brauntuch, Robert Longo, Philip Smith, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sarah Charlesworth, Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum, Laurie Simmons and James Welling.

Despite an impressive amount of support from critics and galleries for his re-photography, in the mid-'80s, Prince began appropriating cartoons from the New Yorker magazine. He wanted to return to the media of drawing and painting without inventing his own subject matter. The jokes followed, often lettered on brilliantly colored monochrome canvases. Lately, the jokes have been conjoined with fragments of imagery silk-screened from cartoons.

These bad-taste Borscht Belt jokes are from the Cold War era, when sexism, racism and homophobia were acceptable subjects, thought they seem embarrassing today. Regardless of medium, for Prince, the jokes are a means of examining issues of gender and identity.

"I think I was always a painter, regardless of what I did in the medium of photography," says Prince. "I see myself as an abstract artist. The jokes are abstract. The subject matter is outside the author's experience. I don't know anything about jokes. I couldn't write one."

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