Once More, With Feeling: Stephen Prina's History Paintings | KCET
Once More, With Feeling: Stephen Prina's History Paintings
When I hear the words "hot pink furniture," I think of a tacky showroom in Las Vegas, or perhaps the boudoir of an over-eager starlet. The austere, elegant modernism of legendary architect R.M. Schindler? Not so much. Yet, those are the two concepts that Stephen Prina has brought together in his installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, now on view through August 4.
One large, light-filled gallery on the top floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum is filled with 28 furnishings-cum-sculptures. They are plywood replicas of built-ins that Schindler originally designed for two custom homes here in L.A. Exceedingly sleek and rectilinear, they proclaim a healthy respect for the right angle. They are also deeply, shockingly pink.
Whatever your feelings about hot pink, it comes with certain cultural baggage not normally associated with the restraint and clarity of modern design: garish, flamboyant, even reckless. Prina's pink Schindlers feel at once familiar and utterly strange. Walking amongst them is like navigating the fragmentary spaces of a dream.
For some, this sensation and the wonder it engenders is enough. But like most of Prina's works, this one, titled "As He Remembered It," comes with a layered back-story. One night in the 1980s, Prina was walking down La Brea Blvd. with fellow artist Christopher Williams when they spied a pink object lighted in a store window. The object turned out to be a piece of built-in furniture from a Schindler house. Obviously, the piece was no longer "built-in," but why had it been removed? And why was it pink?
Schindler, known for iconic modern domiciles sprinkled throughout L.A., was part of a generation of architects committed to the idea of total design, or as Swiss French architect Le Corbusier put it, creating "machines for living." Schindler's built-in furniture was as much a part of his designs as the walls, floor or ceiling. Prina recalls experiencing the object in the window, removed from its original setting, as an "atrocity."
This curious, horrific image stayed with the artist, now in his late 50s, until 2010, when he was invited to do an exhibition at the Secession in Schindler's hometown of Vienna. "I think this is profoundly weird that I had this experience in the mid-80s and then it was this kind of persistently returning, recurring image," he says, "I always thought, 'I've got to make an artwork out of this,' but I couldn't figure it out until I received an invitation from the Secession."
Prina set about researching Schindler's designs, eventually deciding to create replicas of built-ins from two different Schindler houses that had been destroyed. To recreate the pieces, Prina located the original drawings in the Schindler archives at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He gave copies to L.A. architects Frank Escher and Ravi Gunewardena, who worked with an associate to interpret the drawings "as if they were musical scores," says Prina. This intermediate step was necessary, he says, because "Schindler's architectural drawings can be somewhat vague." Schindler often worked as the contractor on his own buildings, and would change his plans during the construction process, never updating the drawings.
Escher and Gunewardena's interpretations were then sent to a carpentry shop in Vienna that cut and built the pieces. Prina also instructed the carpenters to spray paint the pieces in particular shades of green and gray, colors he sampled from photographs he took of the sites where the Schindler houses used to stand. When he arrived in Vienna a few weeks before the opening, he and an assistant applied the final, hot pink coat of paint by hand. The surfaces are patently uneven, full of drips and visible brushstrokes. "I really do think of this as a painting project," Prina says, "these are supports, like any other kind of support...If they would've been sprayed, it would've just returned them to the utilitarian or the industrial." The brusque, handmade treatment also allows the gray and green colors underneath to peek through in a subtle nod to the original architectural sites.
As for the shapes of the objects, some of them are completely recognizable: a bed, a desk, a bathroom counter. Others are more abstract: an L-shaped piece that was once a bench now leans downward, forming a triangle on the ground; a hutch-like set of shelves that once defined a dining area now lies flat on the floor, and the rods in the closets droop pathetically on one side. All are clearly missing the walls that once supported them and made them functional. "That design relied upon the rest of the house," says Prina, "It needs its contextualization to be whole and structurally integral again."
With its references to orphaned furniture and personal memory, the installation might be seen as an act of mourning for this erstwhile wholeness. "Stephen's work is incredibly intellectual," says curator Jarrett Gregory, "and at the same time...there is this whole air of nostalgia, especially with this piece."
Yet Prina is adamant that his work is not driven by sentimentality. "I don't have a nostalgic bone in my body," he says, "but I am very interested in history with a small letter 'h.'" Rather than shy away from personal feeling entirely, he tries to connect it to larger phenomena.
"I find it irritating when artists only shove their privatized interests down my throat," he says, laughing a bit. "I think it so often functions as an alibi: 'This is my privatized interest, you can't touch it, you can't criticize it, you can't step on it, I own it,'" he says, "I resent that, because I don't think anybody owns anything like that. Even our personal recollections have a wider social base."
With that in mind, Prina found himself the beneficiary of a fortuitous coincidence. When his Secession exhibition went on view in 2011, the Pantone color of the year was Honeysuckle Pink, so he decided to use that color. "This is Pantone saying, 'This is the color all of us should love and use in the year 2011,'" he says, "So it's no longer a personal recollection but it's become an institutionally shared value."
To keep the piece from getting too specific, he also selected built-ins from two different Schindler houses. "For a long time I went back and forth about which one should I select," he says, "and then I realized maybe it isn't about that. Maybe actually it's best that I incorporate both of them so it kind of unravels this idea of the singular."
Further distancing the copies from the source, the objects are not arranged as they were in the original houses. Instead, they are placed in a grid pattern in alphabetical order by the name on the Schindler drawing from whence they came: Bathroom, Bedroom, Dining Room, etc. Wandering in their midst, we can never fully grasp the layout of the houses as they were, although we are thoroughly aware of the archive that they have become.
The overall shape of the grid was dictated by the shape and size of the Secession galleries; Prina has preserved the same layout at LACMA, even though the galleries here are larger. This gesture is a way of invoking the history of the piece -- it carries with it a trace of its former site -- and his own history as an artist.
Throughout his career, Prina has continually made pieces that look back at previous works. A poster on the wall of this exhibition bears a spray painted circle with a long, trailing drip that refers to similar paintings he has made using the entire contents of a can of spray paint. On the opposite wall are the most recent paintings in a series begun in 1988, "Exquisite Corpse," for which he intends to make a painting of the same size and shape as every painting recorded in a 1969 catalogue raisonné of Manet's works. (To date, he has completed 236 of 556.) "One of the important things about Stephen's practice is he has these projects that carry on throughout his career," says Gregory, "But then also there's an element of his practice that really does change every time and it's not like we necessarily see something and recognize his work."
This lack of a definitive "trademark" may be the reason Prina is not better known in L.A., despite the fact that he graduated from CalArts in 1980 and lived here until about 10 years ago when he became a professor in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. (He now splits his time between Cambridge and L.A.)
This refusal to adhere to a recognizable "style" is likely the influence of Conceptual art icon Michael Asher, with whom Prina studied at CalArts. Asher, who died last year, was known for installations that were barely perceptible as such: removing a wall in a gallery or changing the intensity and color of the lights to draw attention to the implications of artistic display, both physical and social. Prina's pieces generally provide a little more to hang on to, visually, and he is often described as a "post-Conceptual" artist.
His work, says Gregory, is "the combination of two very different modes. You have the intellectual indexing, and that's in a way the Conceptualism part of it, and then you also have a much more humanizing element."
Hence, hot pink. Despite the intense research and systematic organization that goes into his work, Prina is thoroughly open to serendipity. "He's very particular and methodical," says Gregory, "and then also he's very accepting of the circumstances as they come." She notes that while other artists might be concerned about the wear and tear on their works as they travel from site to site, Prina considers it "patina."
Although steeped in art and architectural history, Prina's work also sustains an engagement with the current moment that runs deeper than Honeysuckle Pink. He is also a musician, and while he has composed experimental pieces to be played by chamber ensembles in galleries, he has also performed and recorded as a pop/rock artist and as part of the band, The Red Krayola. In conjunction with his installation, he has composed a piece for a sextet of flutes that will be performed in LACMA's Japanese Pavilion on June 22. The music is based on a melody written by composer-turned-architect Bruce Goff, who designed the pavilion. Also on view will be a series of paintings and sculptures Prina created in response to Goff's architecture.
The use and interaction of these multiple media is an integral part of Prina's practice. In fact, it wasn't until I saw a video of him performing the Joni Mitchell song, "A Case of You," that I began to really understand his work. His earnest, straightforward rendition of this plaintive tale of lost love was an unconventional part of a talk he gave at the Bergen Kunsthall in 2009. I know the song well, and as Prina played guitar and sang -- albeit in a much lower register and with different melodic turns -- I also heard Mitchell's voice, albeit only in my head. As both singers wound their way through the song, converging and diverging, I suddenly understood how history "with a small letter 'h'" -- in this case, my memory of the song -- percolates through the surface of everything. The echoes or ghosts of what came before infuse everything we do, see and hear in the present. We are living in an archive whose riches we will never be able to fully comprehend, and to which we add our own innumerable traces, everyday.
That this realization should come, not from seeing Prina's work, but from hearing it, speaks to his refusal to privilege one form over the other. "What's the difference between singing that song and speaking an appropriate theoretical language?" he asks, "There's a big difference, but sometimes we need to sing it and sometimes we need to speak it, and sometimes we need to bring those things so that they rub shoulders."
Still, it's impossible to explain everything, no matter what method of transmission you prefer. "I don't get everything that's in my work," says Prina, "Because I'm drawing upon different elements that precede me, that are in circulation in the world. I kind of seize upon them; I do a treatment on them; I put them into a configuration and then I put them out to the world."
Top Image: Installation view, Stephen Prina, "As He Remembered It (detail)," 2011, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Stephen Prina; courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Petzel Gallery, New York. Photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA.