"What if you told a joke and nobody got it? Call the museums."
Richard Prince's Shot Salesman (Joke Painting), completed in 1987, is part of a serial of eleven gag jokes repeated on large monochromatic canvases. These paintings represent a momentous departure from photography towards painting that continued throughout much of his later career. Prince often worked closely with gallerist Colin De Land on his early projects, and the present work was originally shown in 1986 at De Land's American Fine Arts Gallery. Although Prince uses a different medium, he continues to question many of the fundamental assumptions of modern art. The silk-screening process and use of primary colors blue and yellow emphasizes anonymity by removing the human touch from the work. Brushstrokes are almost entirely absent from the canvas, while Prince has flawlessly stenciled the text in yellow in the center. Prince combines the size of the abstract expressionist canvas with the reproduction techniques of Pop art. The joke paintings are as minimal, mechanical, and blunt as his early rephotography. The jokes are annexed by Prince, who collects pulp fiction paperback novels, novelty magazines, and other consumer images. They are rectangular rather than square in format, referencing print media such as books or magazines where these jokes originated.
Although these paintings initially seem straightforwardly banal, at second glance their neutrality becomes more difficult to decipher. The viewer laughs but then perhaps questions how he reacted. The underlying tension to each of these jokes seems awkwardly dated to 1950s middle class America. Prince's jokes explore forces of sexual identity, and social acceptance revealing a dark underside. Shot Salesman's initially friendly tone ends in the violent shooting of the salesman. Many of the other jokes in the series leave the viewer in similar states of disbelief. Prince deconstructs and examines the authenticity of the author, masculinity and his own identity. He is concerned with our fascination, fetishization, and acceptance of the image of advertisements. Chameleon-like, he changes from an artist to a viewer, and now comedian.