Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Richard Prince's "T-Shirt Paintings" and John McCain

Installation view of Richard Prince, "T-Shirt Paintings: Hippie Punk," at Salon 94 Bowery. Photos: 16 Miles

John McCain and Richard Prince were both born in the Panama Canal Zone. The two men also happen to share a love for idiosyncratic gestures, regularly flouting the rules of their respective fields. McCain has spent his three decades in public life happily ignoring the Republican Party’s talking points, supporting the line item veto during President Clinton’s presidency and calling for the protection of detainees at Guantanamo Bay during President Bush's. Now, trying to survive in the newly Tea-soaked political landscape, he has made a dash toward extreme conservatism: “I never considered myself a maverick,” he told Newsweek recently.

Richard Prince, Untitled (t-shirt), not dated

Prince, for his part, has spent the past three decades working on a variety of wildly different projects of wildly varying quality. We have seen Prince act as an ingenious semiotician, a Chamberlain-style sculptor, a world-weary comedian, an unashamed sensualist, and a globetrotting Orientalist. Most recently, for his “Tiffany Paintings” show (up at Gagosian through Saturday), he has painted hazy, nearly abstract fields of color over newspapers and pasted an ad for Tiffany in the upper-right-hand corner of each. They come in a variety of colors and sizes: a style, scale, and price to suit every level of collector.

Ken Johnson rightfully demolished the “Tiffany” paintings in the Times, calling them “stale,” “utterly predictable,” and — my favorite — “crushingly obvious.” But the paintings are so crushingly obvious — so breathtaking boring — that I am tempted to think that Prince is up to something. He must know how bad these paintings are. There must be a conceptual trick we are missing, or a clever wink that we have not yet spotted. However, that may just be wishful thinking. The critical maverick celebrated in the Met’s “Pictures Generation” show may be gone.

Richard Prince, Untitled, 1998; Untitled (t-shirt), not dated

Richard Prince, The Beach, 1993

Complicating matters a bit is a survey of Prince’s “T-Shirt Paintings” at Salon 94’s new space on the Bowery, which is housed in a former restaurant supply store. (The gallery will be renovated this summer, but you can enjoy the authentic graffiti and peeling paint on the walls through June 29.) It seems that, while he has been careening from project to project for the past 25 years, Prince has also been quietly making these simple paintings on T-shirts. There are “joke” T-shirt, abstract T-shirts, and some that recall the bland, half-baked surfaces of his recent “Tiffany” and “de Kooning” series. (Salon 94 is cannily billing the show as a “mini-retrospective.”)

It’s unsettling to learn that Prince has spent a quarter century on this T-shirt series, a bizarre and persistent tonic to the rest of his diffuse body of work. It could indicate that, just as McCain has always been a fiscal and social conservative at heart, Prince has always simply wanted to be able to make silly, lazy paintings.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Woodstock), 2004; Untitled, 2005; Untitled (t-shirt), 1999

Installation view of Richard Prince, "T-Shirt Paintings: Hippie Punk," at Salon 94 Bowery

Richard Prince, "T-Shirt Paintings: Hippie Punk"
Salon 94 Bowery
243 Bowery
New York, New York
Through June 26, 2010

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