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ART : Getting His Chaos in Order : The ways in which we assign meaning to art may be subjective and changing, but they're very real, Stephen Prina says.

January 21, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Anyone familiar with work by artist Stephen Prina would find his home to be exactly as they'd expect: It's austere, devoid of bright colors and neat as a pin. There's nothing in his 11th-floor apartment in a Los Feliz high-rise whose presence doesn't seem to have been scrupulously considered, and he tends to arrange things on tables symmetrically.

Meanwhile, at the back of his apartment lurks "the work room," whose door remains closed. After considerable pestering on the part of the nosy reporter, Prina agrees to show the room, which is astonishingly messy. Seeing the work room, you begin to understand how this artist, who makes rigorously intellectual work exploring systems theory, could also put himself through school working as a lounge act FOLLOW UP TK and teach a seminar on Keanu Reeves. Prina has a mind that craves order, but there's room in that mind for everything, including chaos--as long as it remains in the compartment he's assigned it.

The subject of an exhibition titled "Retrospection Under Duress" opening this weekend at the Margo Leavin Gallery, Prina's mixed-media work is evocative of '60s Conceptualist Lawrence Weiner in its preoccupation with language. Exploring the ways we create and assign meaning, his art is grounded in his belief that "there's no such thing as nonfiction. It's been said that all we do is misinterpret the information we're presented with and that objectivity is impossible, and I agree with that," the 41-year-old artist says. "History is always subjective, and the systems by which we assign value to things like artworks are always in flux."

Born and raised in a small Midwestern town, Prina was the third of three sons in an Italian immigrant family that owned a market in Galesburg, Ill. "It was a funny town," Prina recalls, "because though it was very small, there was a college nearby [Knox College] so people like John Cage would come there to lecture."

When Prina was 10, his sixth-grade teacher noted his ability to draw and recommended to his parents that they enroll him in an art class; thus began his art education. Competing with art for Prina's attention was pop culture.

"In junior high," "I got a guitar and started playing in rock bands, but I became disillusioned with pop music fairly quickly and moved on to jazz, after which I became involved with experimental music," says Prina who would later put himself through school by working in various bar bands.

"When I was 14, my oldest brother took me to the Art Institute of Chicago, and I have vivid memories of seeing work there by John McCracken, Clyfford Still and Ed Moses. It really excited me, so I began talking about art school," he continues.

"My father tended to look at things pragmatically and felt any aesthetic drive should be channeled into something practical. So we agreed I'd study architecture, and in 1972 I enrolled at the University of Illinois. Two weeks before classes were supposed to start, I enrolled in a local junior college instead and started studying art."

In 1974, Prina moved on to Northern Illinois University, pursuing painting and music. "Ad CQ? Reinhardt was important to me then, as were Minimalism and Conceptualism, but all that work had already been historicized," he recalls. "At the time I was making serial work incorporating photography, sculpture, language and found materials."

Graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1977, Prina came to Los Angeles the following year to do graduate work at CalArts. "I chose CalArts because I admired the work by John Baldessari and Doug Huebler, both of whom taught there, and because the school had a reputation for being involved with theory. Classes in theory were hard to find then," Prina says.

"While I was at CalArts, I was reconfiguring compositions by [Arnold] Schoenberg into sound installations," he recalls. "That work marks the beginning of an interest in Appropriation that came to dominate my work by the late '70s. At that point I stopped looking for neutral materials to work with and started using materials that already had a history, which I played off of."

With his master's degree in hand, Prina landed a job teaching the history of 20th century avant-garde music at Art Center, where he continues to work (this semester he's teaching a class on German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder). His first solo show was in 1988 at New York's Luhring Augustine Gallery (his fourth show at that gallery opens March 2), and for the past 12 years he's shown regularly in Europe, where his work draws its largest audience. (He has a show opening at the Galerie Gisela Capitain in Cologne this May).

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