Richard Prince’s New Portraits have proven to be nothing short of sensational. The artist’s controversial series has seen him take other people’s Instagram posts, print them on six-foot canvases and sell them for up to $90,000. The only changes made to these images of everyone from Pamela Anderson to total unknowns are the bewildering or lewd remarks Prince adds to the comments thread. As of last Friday, ten of these new works are on show at Gagosian London. “The iPhone became my studio,” Prince says somewhere in the seven-page stream of consciousness that makes up the press release.
For the last 40 years the New York artist has inspired everything from acclaim to outrage for the unapologetic appropriation that has defined much of his work. As the man who reprinted copies of JD Salinger’s classic teenage anthem Catcher in the Rye with his own name in place of the author’s, Prince has found himself on the wrong side of copyright lawsuits multiple times. Resulting opinions of him tend to violently swing between genius and good-for-nothing. In the case of the New Portraits series, Peter Schjeldahl writing for the New Yorker’s response to the screenshot-cum-paintings was “something like a wish to be dead,” whilst sex writer Karley Sciortino has said she felt honoured to be included in the series.
In an unexpected but fitting turn, people seemed to feel slightly vindicated when some of Prince’s unauthorised Instagram reproductions were recently reproduced and resold by some of their original subjects, namely the LA-based group of alternative pin-up girls and burlesque dancers operating under the moniker SuicideGirls. “Payback!” headlines screamed, but this ceaseless loop of feedback and mirroring perfectly plays to Prince’s raison d’être. Even this is not the artist’s own, and in his ideas about enshrining banality and popular culture he is most definitely walking in Warhol’s slightly worn-out silver shoes.
Mining the internet for source material is not new either, but as abhorrent as they may be, Prince’s portraits eloquently teach a powerful lesson in the trappings of social networking. They test public and private limits and have started an important and much-needed conversation about copyright and art in the digital age. They have also been sharp reminders that our self-exposure and digital exhibitionism doesn’t exist in the vacuums of our various feeds, but very much enters into public territory.
The most absurd part in all of this postmodernist pageantry however, happened during my exchange with Gagosian’s PR when I asked for press images and was told, “I’m afraid that we don’t have permission to use any images of any individual works.” Irony is a beautiful, twisted thing.