Review: ‘She: Wallace Berman and Richard Prince’ at Michael Kohn Gallery
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In theory, pairing a roomful of works by Wallace Berman (1926-76) with a roomful of pieces by Richard Prince makes sense. Both bodies of work focus on women, often naked, posing provocatively or having sex. Both feature collages. And both turn away from the niceties of fine art for the grittiness of mass-produced imagery.
But in person, “She: Wallace Berman and Richard Prince” fizzles. Few sparks fly between Berman’s 38 hauntingly intimate pictures from the 1960s and 1970s and Prince’s 16 coldhearted representations, all but two from 2007-08. Organized by independent curator Kristine McKenna for the Michael Kohn Gallery, the show falls into two separate halves; neither has much to do with the other, except superficially.
The profound differences between Berman’s earnest bohemianism and Prince’s cynical voyeurism are ignored in favor of a theme — naked babes! — that is too trite to deliver significant insights.
Part of the problem is that nudity isn’t what it used to be. The Internet, the porn industry and the sexual revolution are some of the social changes that separate Berman’s era from the present.
Plus, the art world as we know it did not exist when Berman made his fantastic, handcrafted Pop works in Topanga Canyon, where he lived like a DIY outsider and fashioned his own brand of spiritual poetry. In contrast, Prince is an insider, a big player in the international art business. His huge pieces sell briskly at auctions and are regularly featured in major museum surveys and international biennials, to which he travels by private jet.
His works in the first gallery make you wonder what all the fuss is about. Three are blown-up photos from girlie magazines. The two in color are framed and hung on a wall. The third, in black and white, has been enlarged to huge dimensions, transferred to vinyl and affixed to a 1986 El Camino, as if advertising an adolescent fantasy. There’s also a mailbox that Prince has covered with black-and-white reproductions from 1970s porn magazines.
Most of his pieces are page-size collages made from the covers of 60-cent Harlequin Romances and images clipped from porn magazines. Nearly all transform a PG-rated book cover into an X-rated scene. Such pictures might drive middle school boys wild, but some might find them to be boring, too artsy and mean-spirited to be turn-ons. In any case, none inspires second looks or draws you into a world you’d like to visit for long. At best, they are hollow wisecracks for collectors who want to be cool.
In contrast, Berman’s works are cool. They are also poignant, evocative and mysterious, in tune with something bigger, deeper and more moving than mass-produced porn. Cosmic wonder and everyday ordinariness intermingle promiscuously in Berman’s potent pictures. All draw you into a world dense with significance and the possibility of transcendence.
Rather than taking pictures of pictures found in magazines, like Prince, Berman often took pictures of women he knew and loved, including Jay DeFeo, Shirley Berman and Beverly Walsh. The intimacy in his silver prints is palpable. He sometimes mailed his cut-and-paste images to friends, with personal messages meant just for them. Their sweetness still resonates.
Berman also reproduced pictures he found in magazines, using an early Verifax copier to create grids of images. He often used the image of a hand holding a transistor radio as a “frame” for these pictures, suggesting that they were ineffable messages drifting through the atmosphere, like invisible signals from the beyond.
There’s nothing naive or outdated about Berman’s art. It is so much more sophisticated than Prince’s that it doesn’t make sense to juxtapose them.
-- David Pagel
Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 658-8088, through March 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Top: Wallace Berman’s ‘Untitled’ (circa 1965), collaged mailer to Teri Garr; bottom: Richard Prince’s ‘Untitled Nurse’ (2007), collage on paper. Credit: Michael Kohn Gallery