Richard Prince: Early Joke Paintings review

4 out of 5 stars
Richard Prince: Early Joke Paintings review
Richard Prince "WHAT A KID I WAS" (3 TIMES), 1989. © Richard Prince. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt.

Richard Prince isn’t a subtle artist. Smart as a whip, sure, and often infuriatingly complex, but where other artists may ease you into their ideas and aesthetics, Prince comes diving in off the top ropes, body slamming you and jabbing you in the ribs over and over again.

He can be nicking people’s Instagram pictures or displaying sexy ladies on muscle cars, but whatever he does, it’s always in your face with the same up-yours sneer.

These early works here are just big jokes on canvas. Neat typography, some comic-style drawings, but nothing too fancy. Some are funny, but most aren’t. Even when the jokes are funny, they’re so dark that they just feel seedy and grim. ‘My father was never home, he was always drinking booze. He saw a sign saying DRINK CANADA DRY so he went up there.’ Funny, but also really not funny.

There’s death here, murder, arson, sex, non-sequiturs, punchlines. In a stand up set they might just work. But on a canvas in a gallery, they’re divorced from the laughter they’re meant to engender. The jokes get repeated, reframed. They end up making no sense. It’s Prince stealing jokes from bawdy bars, naughty mags and popular culture and totally undermining them, tearing them apart and leaving them meaningless.

But maybe the biggest joke is on art itself. Hung here in a swanky gallery, for sale, they become the subjects of an awful lot of toe-curling, humour-less art wank. You can literally hear gallerists smugly and seriously describing Prince’s aesthetic choices, desperately trying to explain why a joke about a grocer with a cucumber up his arse is high art. Maybe the joke’s on us. And if it is, then it’s absolutely hilarious.

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