The biker chicks that Richard Prince depicted in his Girlfriend series remain some of the most provocative and controversial imagery of the artist’s career, indeed in the history of the postmodern era. Derided as simultaneously misogynistic and vulgar, the Girlfriend series provoked controversy when it was exhibited at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York in the early 1990s. An article appearing in Art in America posed the ironical question, “Is Richard Prince a Feminist?” To this day, the images exist in that nebulous gray area between fine art and obscenity.
The overt sexuality of the present work—Richard Prince’s Untitled (Girlfriend) of 1993—is visually intoxicating. The unabashed nakedness of the figure’s body is at once alluring and shocking. The viewer’s eye is seduced by the taboo imagery the photograph offers, yet simultaneously repelled by the seedy connotations of the photographs’ creation. Prince enhances the amateur nature of the work. The photograph is grainy and unfocused, the body is poorly lit, and the background is blurred to the point of unrecognition. Ironically, the figure seems to be located in a rural setting, since she’s standing in a grassy field, a large, red barn just discernible in the background. The photograph presents a strange mix of wholesome American splendor and sleazy white-trash depravity, an undercurrent that runs through Prince’s work that found its footing in the 1980s and reaches a pinnacle in Untitled (Girlfriend) of 1993.
The Girlfriend series was ground-breaking in its appropriated use of amateur photographs that Prince found while trolling through biker magazines that depicted scantily-clad women astride motorcycles. The photographs, that men submitted of their girlfriends in various states of undress,display a rudimentary honesty in their home-spun look and the amateurish technique the photographs display. The out-of-focus background and poor lighting of the shots were accentuated in Prince’s appropriated image, which has the dual effect of both heightening the artificial construction of the image while simultaneously recalling its origins as a real photograph of a real person, lending a palpable intimacy that is at once fascinating yet off-putting.
The genius of the Girlfriend series results from Prince’s strategies of appropriation, a technique he’s continued since his first appropriated photographs of the 1970s. By taking the photograph out of context, Prince gives it new meaning, which may or may not be readily understandable at first glance. In Untitled (Girlfriend), the nude figure poses for her boyfriend’s camera by imitating countless other nude women she’s seen. Maybe she’s leafed through a copy of her boyfriend’s Playboy or seen some steamy film, but the artificiality of her pose makes it clear that she’s masquerading as a constructed ideal of female sexuality, all of which plays out in front of the camera. Prince zeros in on the inherent voyeurism rampant in the Girlfriend photos. After all, you’re only nude if someone is watching. Nakedness on its own is wholesome, biblical even. It’s the audience that makes it lurid.
In 1965, the singer-songwriter Nico once famously told Lou Reed, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and her evocative phrase was immortalized by the Velvet Underground a year later. Though the phrase has been often applied to the work of Andy Warhol, it might also apply to Richard Prince. In the Girlfriend series, Prince holds up a giant mirror to our face, revealing our most honest, unabashed desires, our private wants and needs. The Girlfriend series are photographs of ourselves by ourselves. In appropriating their imagery, Prince allows us to see ourselves for how we really are, and the results are intriguing.
When Art in America asked, “Is Richard Prince a Feminist?” it turns out the answer might have been yes. The author of that article, Carol Squiers, ponders the question. “Since the mid-1980s, Prince has appropriated photographs of real-world women, rather than commercial images of women, who are working various transformations upon themselves. These women are engaged in a struggle, which they often lose: to signify themselves as absolutely individual while boxing themselves into prefabricated roles. They are doggedly trying to become something else, yet what they are cannot be completely eradicated. … Prince seems fascinated by their strenuous attempts at self-transformation, which ultimately don’t quite work. Like the Marlboro Man, the women he portrays posit themselves as outlaws and individualists. But ironically, the way they attain outlaw status most often is by displaying their sexuality for men to admire. So, when the biker chicks go riding off into the sunset, they’re topless on a Harley-Davidson. The women Prince chooses never achieve the seamless images of movie stars or fashion models; there’s something smutty and disreputable about them, they remain a patch-work of wishes and desires” (Carol Squiers, quoted in “Is Richard Prince a Feminist?”, Art in America, November 1993).