Richard Prince's protest art comes to London

The American artist shows his placard paintings together for the first time. What should we make of them?
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Untitled (Protest Painting) (1994), Untitled (Protest Painting) (1994) by Richard Prince
Untitled (Protest Painting) (1994), Untitled (Protest Painting) (1994) by Richard Prince

When it comes to cultural ephemera, there's no artist quite like Richard Prince. His photograph of a vintage Marlboro campaign image, Untitled (Cowboy) (1989), was, for a short while, the most expensive painting ever sold, when it went for $1,248,000 at Christie's in New York back in November 2005. He has also appropriated everything from biker pornography through to pulp fiction book covers and Britney Spears portraits. However, a lesser-known selection of works go on show in London this autumn, which prove just how adept he is in picking up on the vernacular art within our everyday lives.

From October 15 - December 20 the Skarstedt Gallery in London will show Richard Prince's Protest Paintings. These works are composed within the outline of a protest march placard, and bring to mind the hopes of 20th century democratic enfranchisement, when people power could be expressed simply by writing a message and waving it in the streets.

 

Untitled (Protest Painting)  (1994) by Richard Prince
Untitled (Protest Painting) (1994) by Richard Prince

Yet Prince's Protest Paintings, created between 1986 and 1994, seem to undermine both in terms of the text and the image. The paintings are blurred, with smears and flecks bringing to mind Richter, Pollock, or the smeariest of Warhols. What's more, when Prince includes words on the placard, it isn't a political demand, but more commonly an old joke, either typeset or written on by hand. Prince is known for repeating these gags throughout his work, and, while they're often funny, there's a scabrous, stale quality to them. Take this one, from a 1992 Protest painting: “Man walking out of a house of questionable repute muttered to himself, 'now that's what I call a business. You got it, you sell it and you still got it.'”

 

Untitled (Protest Painting)  (1986) by Richard Prince
Untitled (Protest Painting) (1986) by Richard Prince

It's hard to square the kind of club comedian who might deliver a line like this, with the kind of hopeful young activist marching in the streets, and perhaps that's the point. Anyone in London next month can make their own mind up. Visit the gallery's site here. For further insight into Prince's work, take a look at our great monograph. And for more on vernacular art within our everyday lives you've got to take a look through the wonderful Wild Art.


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