Written by John Kelsey
The artist is always finding ways of testing the capacity for non-specificity in this thing he’s working on. For example, he might push a painting to exchange its own powers of abstraction and mediation with those of the poster, the page, the screen, the t-shirt or even the muscle car.
Because it’s such a tough and at the same time flimsy object, the painting is still one of the better and more convenient devices for picturing the limit beyond which art threatens to forget what it is. For so long now it has been so convinced of its own nature, and now it realizes that its act is all the more convincing when it is able to abandon it. It’s probably because the painting has so much built-in specificity to begin with that it’s so good at hallucinating “the crisis of art.”
Like postcards, they arrive from a certain distance, and somehow packaged in their own distance, postmarked R-ville, signed Prince but with somebody else’s picture on it, somebody else’s words even. They enjoy the anonymity of postcards, of personalizing and addressing it.
And a painting is a camera, we start to realize, when it makes itself more passive and than expressive, more of a receptor than a signal. When the painting joins forces with the camera, what it makes use of is the photograph’s automatic, passive-aggressive way of capturing and doubling the world, and repeating itself too, and its ease. It’s how the painting gets real, gets fresh, catches us out here in this state of distraction we prefer to be in anyway, and even re-distracts us. And if it’s abstract it’s in the way that a magazine page or a dollar bill is abstract, or abstracting. It involves itself in the abstraction of the world, in all the ways it has of picturing and distancing itself. What a painting gets from a car is more than just speed, it gets culture.
Is a joke a material? To a comedian it is. There is the material and then there is the timing and the delivery of the material, which makes it an act. He says “my act” or “my material” but he also has a way of disappearing behind these things, almost to the point where there’s no more me, only material, like that joke about the psychiatrist doing my act now. Every comedian, every artist, is constantly scandalized about being robbed, and they’re right because material has a way of getting away from us, like language. It’s what it does, and maybe it never really belonged to us in the first place. For example, the neurotic on the couch who repeats himself (his life) into the tough crowd of the analyst’s ear, who’s already heard it all before. The joke is about not being able to hang onto yourself, about not being able to tell your own story, and also about transference. In a joke painting, Prince both spaces and times the material across the canvas, sometimes making it repeat and stutter in that tough, blank place, until it begins to do the painting’s act too. It’s working the room, the canvas. It’s hard to say if the painting is ripping off the material or if it’s the other way around. And what we are tempted to call the comic timing of the painting has to do with the way the material takes over its surface, sometimes bombing and sometimes knocking it dead.
There is also the nagging question of where these works are coming from. A painter belongs in a studio, but maybe he calls it a second house, and maybe it’s more like a library or a garage to him anyway, a collection. Prince has made it strange to call these things and places by their proper names but he’s also made it not matter that we are disoriented here. He keeps working, and these places become part of the landscape, the country, and soon you’re saying the picture is a cowboy, the painting is a Prince, and those are his girlfriends, his tits and his books, and here it is in a magazine too. This country is sometimes featured in the French fashion magazine Purple, for example. The works themselves pick up speed here, or develop a schizophrenic capacity to be in several places at once, sometimes without even leaving the driveway.
The bibliophile, the car freak, the homeowner, the stand-up, the cowboy, Stella Tenant, the artist alone in his studio, all the figures that people the art of Richard Prince are beings who, like us, keep coming up against the question of where their material ends and we begin. This is a question we share with painting, which uses whatever it can – books, bank checks – to open itself up again, sometimes to the point where it threatens to abandon its own properties and get sucked into some other kind of space. Other times it slams like a car door and nothing more gets in. But the Nurse only gives and gives. That’s what she’s here for, that and maybe to take the painting’s temperature.
If something useful could be taken out of the museum and into life today it might be the question of how to position oneself as a producer in relation to this never-ending work we call consumption, so that we too can start asking ourselves where and how the emergence of the subject happens along this slippery, twisted assembly line that links spectatorship to labor. It could be that all we have in common is the fact that nothing here belongs to us, and that what Foucault calls the “aesthetics of the self” is from now on an art of piracy and duplication. By disturbing the idea or the image of property, we automatically make ourselves (our properties) slip too. And it’s not as if the artist is immune or outside of these disturbances, they are now part of the activity he calls painting.
We could argue that the joke paintings are acting out the generalized process by which language – what defines us as human, our very capacity to communicate – is transformed into an image that reduces us to spectators and consumers of our own linguistic nature. The check paintings are a rather direct presentation of the abstraction of interpersonal relations (or transactions) in a free-market democracy, their paper trails mapping the creative process itself in terms of cash flows between certain people and places. And if the cowboy is a lost idea of autonomy and manhood sold back to us as image, rephotography is a means not only of shoplifting this image but of repeating our own theft, stealing theft itself. So in a time when the work we do consists almost entirely of communication, and of picturing communication, the challenge is to find ways of keeping a hand in one’s own abstraction, or of intervening in the speeds and effects of one’s own becoming-image. We should probably get more involved with the things that are rubbing us out. Sometimes the painting takes a magazine speed and bogs it down in another kind of drippy, layered, tombstone-like slab of a picture.
People talk about our common crisis, the crisis of these days. To say there is a crisis of singularity under spectacular democratic capitalism today is to realize that the more individual we make ourselves, the more alike we become. Not like someone in particular, just like. And in a time when the white male artist, for example, continues to align himself with all those forces that reduce his role to that of a regular freelance “creative” or symbol manager, a free agent loyal to no team, living from one deal to the next, working non-stop and often cynically under the sign of this crisis, we sometimes wonder why he doesn’t finally admit that he’s done for, or at least take a break. In art school they teach us how to show up in a field where artists have become as interchangeable as the things they make, a lesson in branding. But the practices that interest us now are those that embrace the condition of whateverness itself as an experimental possibility. There are moments when the only way to make something happen is to become a stranger in one’s own studio, in the very act of producing and in the face of our own products. Repetition can be a way of keeping this moment open, and so can interruption. Paintings without painters, painters without paintings.
To paint today is to locate oneself at the exact point where the loss of difference between activity and passivity begins to picture itself, to preside there as both cowboy and nurse, as a whatever-singularity. Which is to say that the “artist’s life,” if we could still call it that, is an attempt to elaborate a constant and precise relation to non-specificity, and to invent new and specific ways of presenting this. And there’s no reason why painting can’t accompany these exploits too. Painting is no more susceptible than any other medium of falling into bad repetitions, for example, and never coming out of them.
And what about the nurses, can they help? They are a lost genre stalking our scene as if in another man’s daydream. Maybe they are a way of revealing the increasing non-specificity of our contemporary art, a zombie specificity stalking a country that no longer recalls the men whose dime novel fantasies these clean dirty normal working girls once starred in. Are they fake memories? Are they the new cowboys? Like blondes, or blonde jokes, they are provisional and readymade specificities looking for a connection, in a comedy club, in a hospital or in a painting. Are they visions? Maybe they’re here because we are finally cracking up. How to put oneself together but also how to get rid of yourself: a question for paintings. Other ways of looking, but also the capacity to elaborate an unexpected, scandalously precise distance from your property, his material, her tits, my act.