‘A mother’s having a very tense relationship with her fourteen year old son. Screaming and fghting are constantly going on in the house. She finally brings him to a psychoanalyst. After two sessions, the doctor calls the mother into the office. ‘Your son,’he tells her, ‘has an Oedipus complex.’ ‘Oedipus, Schmedipus,’ the woman answers, ‘as long as he loves his mother.’
Painted in 1991, Oedipus Complex is one of Richard Prince’s celebrated series of monochromatic joke paintings, which play with the notion of authorship and appropriation in American popular culture. Picking out the lines of the joke in a dark blue sans serif typeface, arranged in a rare pattern of anxiety-inducing waves against a field of fatly painted pink, Prince has created a work that resonates on abstract, conceptual and prosaic levels. At its core, Prince’s work is concerned with shedding new light on familiar elements of pop culture; the joke paintings are deadpan, visual expressions of humour that expose the subversive undercurrents central to comedy.
Like jokes themselves, characterised by their familiar scripted format and colloquial patter, Prince’s series of joke paintings is formulaic, presenting a well-known wisecrack silkscreened onto a monochrome background. When reading or hearing a joke there is the expectation of a certain rhythm of build towards a punch line and the subsequent release it engenders. By isolating the joke in the centre of the canvas, Prince lays bare the tragedy inherent in comedy, its subversive content and hidden perversity, exposing the tensions that underlie social interaction and scrutinizing the taboos that shape society. In Oedipus Complex, the undulating lines of text and jarring yellow shading reflect the angst that sets the scene of the narrative. This old-fashioned gag, like the others in Prince’s repertoire, is an uneasy balance of Freudian anxiety and deadpan shtick humour: ‘‘Your son,’ he tells her, ‘has an Oedipus complex.’ ‘Oedipus, Schmedipus,’ the woman answers, ‘as long as he loves his mother.’’ Illustrated by the subversive comedy that lies behind the joke told in Oedipus Complex, Prince recognises that humour is one of the most prosaic and commonly used ways of coping with the human condition. In his joke paintings, Prince takes control of this disorientating power, and wields it on canvas, paint and stretcher, to challenge his own medium and profession. Glenn O’Brien argues: ‘Like a joke, art is something you get or don’t get. Art and jokes instigate the recognition of a shared point of view, an acknowledgement of a punch line’ (G. O’Brien, ‘The Joke of the New’, in Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 114).
The joke paintings began in the mid-1980s as hand-written pieces that the artist never originally intended for public display. Attracted to the strategy of cartoons, which simultaneously amuse while exposing the pathos of everyday life, Prince began copying them from magazines such as the New Yorker: ‘I was living in Los Angeles. I drew a lot of Whitney Darrow cartoons… I started calling these cartoon drawings ‘jokes’ and realized I was calling them wrong. So I started to forget about the cartoon image and just think about the text or punch line. I picked out about a dozen jokes... ones that were familiar, the ones that get retold, and wrote them out, by hand on small pieces of paper. Paper and pencil. Pencil on paper’ (R. Prince, Interview with the artist and Larry Clark in Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 131). However, he quickly realised their potential, later remarking, ‘Sometimes when I walk into a gallery and I see someone’s work, I think to myself, ‘Gee, I wish I had done that.’ When I have that reaction to something I make, then I think I should stay with it, and go with it. It’s not like I have that reaction a lot. Very, very few times do I ever have that reaction. I remember thinking that if I had seen someone make the hand-written joke and call it their work, I would have said, ‘I wish I had done that’’ (R. Prince, quoted in ‘Band Paintings: Kim Gordon interviews Richard Prince’ in Interview Magazine, June 2012).
Abandoning the pictorial element of the cartoons to focus on the caption only, Prince realised that to pair it with the traditional medium and discipline of painting transformed the slightly outdated Borscht Belt humour he favoured into provocative subject matter. As he has later said, ‘The subject is radical – the idea of taking ‘jokes’ as a pictorial theme was really new, a virgin territory, untested waters. To draw them and then present them as your own art was to ask for a lot of understanding from the public. The materials used – canvas, stretcher, paint – were very traditional. That’s the discipline,’ (R. Prince, quoted in V. Duponchelle, ‘Richard Prince: To Collect Is to Compare’ in Richard Prince, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, Paris, 2008, p. 83). Prince’s oeuvre deals with questions of authorship, working both within and expanding upon the pop framework of Andy Warhol’s conceptual strategy of mass culture appropriation. Prince’s fascination with the consumer materials of contemporary culture is well documented, and like the ready-made quality of an advertisement freely available for public consumption, the recycled jokes he uses in this series are essentially authorless statements. Taking ownership of these anecdotes and immortalizing them in the physical form of a painting, Prince creates a body of work that recalls the mass production of the factory line in its repetitive invocation of these staples of American culture.
First emerging in the 1970s, Prince represents a foundational figure within an important group of artists including Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Elaine Sturtevant, Cindy Sherman, David Salle and Jack Goldstein, popularly referred to as the Pictures Generation, whose work responded to an America disillusioned by the Nixon Watergate scandal, the ongoing War in Vietnam, and racial and social instability. Disenchanted by their environment, the Pictures Generation challenged the proliferation of media and marketing images that accompanied a rapidly expanding consumer class, deconstructing these seductive images and interrogating them for their role in the construction of identity and their abstruse claims to originality and authenticity. Formally, Oedipus Complex mimics the abstract or Colour Field painters of the 1950s and 1960s, recalling the energizing presence of a ‘zip’ within Barnett Newman’s paintings, the structured clarity of an Ellsworth Kelly, or channelling the post-painterly minimalist aesthetic of a Frank Stella. Yet, by incorporating a culturally significant portion of authorless or found text, Prince places himself within the legacy of the conceptual avant-garde and demonstrates an engagement with the tradition of the ready-made, following in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. With characteristic iconoclasm, Prince has taken the esteemed legacy of some of the most serious schools of painting and subverted it, resulting in a picture that is disarmingly resonant despite the simplicity and understated elegance of its execution.