NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
When I met Luke Leyden four years ago he was really into full frontal performance art. In the face of inspiration Leyden has always been fearless. He graduated with a BFA from Rowan University, is an adjunct professor at Moore College of Art and Design, and a member of the art collective Little Berlin.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
I follow Richard Prince on Twitter, which is the reason I am still experiencing “New Portraits,” rather than forgetting about it like most of the New York art scene. “New Portraits” is made up of screen shots of people’s Instagram photos that Prince comments on and prints on 6×4 foot canvas. Prince works almost exclusively in appropriated imagery. He takes images that aren’t his and makes them into his own work with very minor changes. In his “Cowboy” series he took Marlborough advertisements, cropped out the logos, and blew them up into giant artist prints.
If you do not have a background or education in art or art history, you have been taught that “art” should be original and unique. This work questions the artist as unique creator. Andy Warhol used a similar practice. He was not interested in originality.
I don’t disagree with Prince—although I do think he’s an asshole. I make work with appropriated imagery. I’ve found old illustrated instructionals and textbooks, and edited them to find my own meaning. I’ve created zines by taking black-and-white photos from pamphlets and old advertisements I’ve found in the trash. I enjoy looking at a number of artists who work in similar practices, like Sherrie Levine’s “After Walker Evans” and Hank Willis Thomas’s “Unbranded” series. These artists were specifically using the method of appropriation to critique. Levine was critiquing the idea of a photographic print as an original. Thomas was critiquing the exploitation of black Americans in advertisements.
Prince’s “New Portraits” work much better in an academic setting. He has taken a ubiquitous smartphone app and used it in a way that 99% of its users are not going to understand or agree with, and started a debate. Where can digital art go from here? What other parts of internet-culture can be raised to the level of art? But for anyone not part of this academic discussion the pictures are nothing more than stolen images. Some are exceptionally exploitative because of their sexual nature.
It is not Prince’s work that makes him an asshole. Prince gets off on people being pissed. Each day I scroll through my Twitter feed, as he posts new screen caps of teenagers and retirees on Facebook telling him he is scum and that he’s a thief. Prince has made his whole art making process public (he leaves a comment on the photo prior to screen capturing it) and he continues to retweet and repost angry responses.
I can’t think of an artist in history who has so wholly turned against the public. The biggest problem is that the line between art world and non-art world has been crossed. Prince has stepped into others’ territory far beyond appropriating the work of the guy (Sam Abell) who made advert photos for a cigarette company.
At Artscape 2015 in Baltimore I was introduced to the work of Kaita Niwa. One of her pieces consisted of a Fiji-water-bottle-shaped piece of acrylic and a photo of Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space. This piece caught my eye immediately. I felt like I was in on the joke! “I love Bird in Space. What a great reference!” I don’t know anything about the legal implications of taking both a brand and a famous piece of work and putting them together. I never worry about that when I’m creating work. I have a feeling this artist doesn’t worry about it either.
This is where Richard Prince differs. He is a world-famous artist who has left his ivory tower to interact with the common folk in a way that they are not ready to accept. This is not someone using the Fiji water bottle logo, a Campbell’s soup can, a photo from a newspaper in a town no one has ever heard of. This is people’s faces. Their bodies. Real people with real Instagram accounts. They posted that work with the (however unrealistic) expectation that the photos are theirs. To find out that someone calling themselves an “artist” is selling these photos for tens of thousands of dollars is something unbelievable. The most important thing that can come from this body of work and all the controversy surrounding it is the understanding that privacy online is not real. Prince has used appropriation offline for decades. Artists have used it forever. With the introduction of the internet the attention simply shifts and is heightened.