Grecian urns were everyday objects once. Why wait for rarity to analyze them or admire their beauty?
Recontextualizing everyday objects was already pretty established by the eighties, though, and to be honest I'm not really a car guy. It's Prince's work on rephotography and resampling texts that grabs me more. Here, instead of objects, he arranges images from diverse popular sources in ways that draw attention to their structural similarities, and what that says about the culture that produces them. So he would, say, take just the head and shoulders of a model from a advertisement, blow it up to a good sized gallery canvas, and place it next to two other photo samples with model's heads tilting at exactly the same angle. He also loved advertisements featuring the Marlboro Man. He's documenting what might be called the visual language of consumerism. It seems in this way he is making small steps beyond a pop culture fetishist like Warhol.
Prince mixes mediums. He collected a vast-quantity of one-liner jokes of the slightly dirty variety, and he reproduces them in places that makes you work harder to understand them. He will repeat jokes in a list, start in the middle, mispunctuate. One of his and the curators favourites:
A man walks out of a house of ill-repute, smiling. "What a great business!" he exclaims. "You got it, you sell it, and you still got it!"
He also used cartoons of the same style, as on postcards. One piece has a series of such cartoons all working on a template of a beautiful girl stuck alone on a desert island with a libidinous man. They are shrunk down to bare readability and placed on a background of travel brochure shots of tropical islands. He also reworked amateur pop culture, like biker mags.
Later pieces synthesised these approaches. So you get a series of vaudevillian one-liners on a canvas of cheques, printed with porn photo reproductions and lightly smeared with paint so that the effect only appears on closer examination.
I'm not sure if Prince's obsession with pop culture is that of an anthropologist or a forensic pathologist. Certainly the curator describes him as angry at his times and disgusted at consumerism, thinking pop America grotesque. It seems a miserable kind of existence. Perhaps, given Prince's membership of the high art set, it was merely insincere and astoundingly elitist. At least the other postmodernists seem to be having fun.
As do we. Prince stands in relation to contemporary culture as a pure mathematician sometimes stands in relation to contemporary physics. He was exploring, decades earlier, techniques and viewpoints that we now find startlingly everyday. We forward each other mangled chains of one-liner emails, we photoshop David Hasslehoff into the Marlboro Man, we drive our cars into our living rooms and post it on flickr, we express rage with the current regime by linking to a news article and storming off to Starbucks. So Richard Prince is both prophetic and obsolete. If we want a montage of junk culture photography, all we need to do is type "topless biker chicks" into Google Images.
Prince's latest work reflects this - he has moved away from editorial techniques to his own photography, and fanboy paintings of nurses from pulp novels. He's a content provider now. As a fine artist producing distinct objects though, he's not quite in the same line of work as the rest of us in this time of consumer immaterialism, of expensive creation and cheap reproduction. If you live in the rich world, the tertiary economy swamps its manufacturing cousin in resampling and recontextualization: you do freelance work for a project management consultancy running a branding campaign for reselling liquidity puts on future revenues of bit torrent reruns of M*A*S*H, in Cantonese. You got it, you sell it, and you still got it. What a business.