Charlie Company,  2008

Ink jet, collage and acrylic on canvas

131 x 100 inches (332.7 x 254cm)


© Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

Ocular Intoxication: Richard Prince's "Canal Zone" at Gagosian

by Brian Appel


"The story was basically about a guy who lands in St. Barth, gets off the plane, is immediately told that there's been a nuclear holocaust in the rest of the world, and he looks at his family and says 'We can't go back.'"
- Richard Prince


Richard Prince’s entire production—photographs, paintings, sculptures, collages, writing and drawing—is richly woven, complex and political, not only because of how he makes the work but more so what he is asking us to look at and think about, i.e.; its cultural meaning.

“Canal Zone”, the artist’s latest body of work—a collection of 15 bravura paintings that transform the former reality of his birthplace into an “anarchic tropical scenario”—is no exception.

Packed with sex and sensuality so that it appears to almost burst from the canvas itself, Prince’s newest artworks juxtapose the re-photography of pre-existing, highly mediated photographic-based images of prostrated, hugely endowed female pin-ups from the pages of vintage soft-porn and ‘naturist’ magazines with a virile Rastafarian male complete with gigantic dreadlocks and an electric guitar.


The Other Side of the Island,  2008

Ink jet, acrylic, oil crayon, charcoal on canvas

84 x 132 inches (213.4 x 335.3cm)


© Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

To this hotbed of seemingly disparate content (appropriately set in the feverish eroticism of a tropical paradise) Prince, has introduced the cheerfully ‘vulgarizing’ collage method of art-making and with it, the purely aesthetic matters of tactility and paint.

Here we have all the elements that have provided Prince with his notoriety—images that traffic in social and cultural stereotypes, the odor of sleazy sex, the “theft” of previously consumed commercial imagery whose photographic strategy is to disguise the directorial mode as a form of documentary, and the ironic commentary on popular desires. As he has written:

“The pictures I went after, stole, were too good to be true. They were about wishful thinking”.

Certainly, Prince is up to his old tricks here—throwing a well situated wrench into one of the insidious myths of American consumer culture—the ruthless exposing of the machinery of pornography and the celebration of the implied forbidden pleasures of unbridled sex with multiple members of the opposite sex.

With “Canal Zone”, the artist switches the settings of his previous ‘scenarios’ from the hospital—with its enduring stereotype of the accommodating young nurse with heaving breasts and too tight uniforms (recycled from the covers of 1960’s and early 1970s pulp novels)—to the pleasures of the sexy surfaces of a tropical island retreat, some complete with huge expanses of marijuana plants.


Tales of Brave Ulysses,  2008

Ink jet, acrylic and collage on canvas

84 x 132 inches (213.4 x 335.3cm)


© Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

Instead of the handsome white doctor on the cover of a pulp nurse paperback, Prince has substituted the buff, dreadlocked Rastafarian—naked, save for gym shorts and rubber boots. An electric guitar is often collaged onto his hips in a suggestive way—the neck of the instrument in a permanent state of ‘arousal’.

As if enmeshing us in clichés about sexual attractiveness and the promise of sex, notions of beauty and the mating habits on an exotic tropical island were not enough, Prince introduces another loaded subject—a racial component in the guise of a collaged detail of a white man’s hands playing an electric guitar on top of the black arms of the Rastafarian.

Could this be a sly reference to racial cross-dressing, as in the Melvin Van Peebles’s “Watermelon Man”, (1970)—in which Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface plays a suburban racist who wakes up one morning to find himself black (too much time under the sunlamp)? Is this a nod to the metaphorical racial romance underlying the construction of American whiteness or a backhanded dig at the status symbols of the rock-and-roll generation—of youth, of virility, of immortality?

It could be argued that “Canal Zone” raises a tongue-and-cheek pointer to the “blue-eyed invasion” by White artists who performed passable versions of black-folk-filled music like Sting, Madonna, Steve Winwood and/or White rappers who ‘pirate’ the renegade ethic of black male sexuality along with passable imitations of soul music. Might it also be a sly reference to the artist’s own transgressive appropriations?

Introducing a note of absurdity and of deliberately questionable taste, the Rastafarian male is seen riding a donkey in the company of nude female models in “Back to the Garden” and “Charlie Company”. Although not explicitly shown, the two canvases unavoidably suggest the possibility of sexual contact with animals.

The Rastafarian, who is central to the ‘plot’ of what could be called a ‘quasi-movie’, might refer to a monotheistic religion called Negroism that worships a God named Stan who created a donkey from the tip of his finger. Upon creating the donkey, He fornicated with it to create women. Stan then fornicated with the women to create a man and the man and woman only created more men and women.


Back to the Garden,  2008

Collage, Ink jet and acrylic on canvas

80 x 120 inches (203.2 x 304.8cm)


© Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever


The presence of the man and the donkey might also refer to the arrival of Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem. Jesus’ “triumphal entry” was not that of a General or a warrior. Such men ride stallions. The donkey revealed Jesus to be a humble peasant on a peace mission, and functions as a sacred throne for, not only a King, but the very Son of God. Note, too, that it was a donkey that had carried Jesus and Mary at the beginning of his life just before he was born as they rode into Bethlehem, and now a donkey carries him into Jerusalem just before his death. Jesus’ donkey could be construed as showing us that that which we think has no value, has tremendous value in God’s eyes. Could it also symbolize that misogyny, racism and the sexualization of children running rampant in art, mainstream cinema, television and advertising is every bit as important as understanding them in porn?

The presence of the “ass” might also be the tip of a hat to Jeff Koons’s “Buster Keaton”, a polychromed wood sculpture from 1988 of the titular actor astride a miniature horse. The work was last seen in the fall of 2008 at the auction previews at Christie’s in Rockefeller Plaza.

Provocative too is the mixing of professional and non-professional models—the paid female porn models ‘performing’ for the camera—versus the Rastafarian male culled from an anthropological photo ‘study’ by French artist Patrick Cariou.

The ‘untrained’ Rastafarian actor is supposedly able to imbue a still image with a rough edginess, an unmediated sincerity or authenticity, perhaps a greater sense of ‘the real’—issues that suggest a Richard Prince ‘directed’ scenario that serves an ideological purpose.

Whatever the mix, the ‘heavy-lifting’ in the canvases are performed by professional female models who were originally paid to portray the explosive ‘vulgarizing’ or sensual display which were consumed by viewers who paid for the right to ‘look’ in the original contexts in which they were sampled by Mr. Prince.

The paintings gain a lot of sexuality through the pose of the figures. Some flex their arms, some open their legs, some twist their bodies and some throw their heads back, creating a stop-and-stare eroticism that seems to float like a scent across the canvas.

The artist’s use of paint—a smattering on a breast, drips on a thigh or buttocks—help to create the pleasurable optic sensation of contact, but also make both an aesthetic elaboration and ironic reference to the Ab-Ex tradition of painting championed by Pollock and de Kooning. The addition of opaque circles and oblong shapes to the eyes, the nose and the mouth directs the eyes to the models’ chest, pelvis and thighs and renders them totally seductive. We can see no face, just the feminine characteristics of long hair.

Prince has taken out the quality or condition of being specific (or shown it at an angle where the identity is unknowable) in order to make the figure less personal. Their identities, being hidden, are almost entirely lost.

The almost complete absence of the face is key here because it exempts the viewer from being looked back at (or being seen). A visual mastery is put in place. An active, even potentially sadistic relationship (in the psychoanalytic sense) is in play.

Whose needs do they serve, whose goals and values do they advance? Is this an attempt to reduce the figures to mere models of sexual representations or to come closer to the figure as a sculptural form? Does he obscure the women’s identities to protect them from the viewer and himself? Does this depiction truthfully originate from his desire to see women as something deeper, a secret respect or rather a humane consideration of them as more than a sex object? Is this a distancing device as strategy for dealing with ideologically loaded content? Can he now play with sexuality and eroticism without feeling he is using specific women?

On closer inspection, many of the models utilize a “burlesque dialogue” with the art of De Kooning and Picasso—strategies that have moved the artist from the pulp and pop of commercial imagery to a multi-dimensional language with aesthetic implications that span the histories of art, architecture, literature and music.

The execution of primitive masks and elephant-like hands and feet on many of the models—both male and female—conjure Jungian archetypes and the drawing upon African form, modernist refinement and high pictorial seriousness. Inevitably, comparisons to Gauguin’s Tahiti nudes, de Kooning’s “Women” and Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’ Avignon” will be made.

Combining the state of the art digital technology of the ink-jet print with the primitive collage technique whereby printed figures are roughly cut out and with a squeegee are pasted directly onto the base canvas,
the machinery of the pornographic co-mingles with the painterly purity of “high” art. The new dissolves into the old, the real into the imagined, and both artist and viewer explore the mysterious spaces between figuration and abstraction, past and present and two and three dimensional space.

Like Warhol before him, Richard Prince is fascinated by the nature of “media images”—the social construction and false façade of consumerist culture. Both men infuse these once disposable images with a new spirit and liberate them from their initial function often in a pictorial ‘arrangement’ as a filmstrip-like sequence. And like the Prince of Pop, both men were voracious collectors who assessed, organized, preserved, maintained control over, and incorporated an ever-expanding collection of pop ephemera into their art.

But Prince has leaped on the sex taboo in art as though it were the last frontier. Crossing the boundary between pornography or what has passed as the explicit depiction of sexual subject matter into the frame of “high art” is a high-wire act few would try.

Can pornography, with subject matter whose sole intention is one of sexually exciting the viewer become a platform for the artist’s sincere search for exploring man’s (and woman’s) untamed nature? Is Prince using sexuality as the most direct reference to guilt and shame? Was his intention one to liberate people by revealing the beauty in erotic love? Is it ultimately a search for new ways of life, more primitive, more real and more sincere?

Perhaps Prince is simply encouraging release and enjoyment in his viewers. It’s a new manifesto presenting sexuality as something to be embraced, something innocent, something vital to our survival, and crucially, something fun.


Dear Mary,  2008

1987 Buick Grand National

857 x 196 x 74 inches (144.8 x 502.9 x 188cm)


© Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

Brian Appel 2008 Webdesign by Lovegrove & Repucci