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ART : Getting His Chaos in Order : The ways in which we assign meaning to art may be subjective and changing, but they’re very real, Stephen Prina says.

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Anyone familiar with work by artist Stephen Prina would find his home to be exactly as they’d expect: It’s austere, devoid of bright colors and neat as a pin. There’s nothing in his 11th-floor apartment in a Los Feliz high-rise whose presence doesn’t seem to have been scrupulously considered, and he tends to arrange things on tables symmetrically.

Meanwhile, at the back of his apartment lurks “the work room,” whose door remains closed. After considerable pestering on the part of the nosy reporter, Prina agrees to show the room, which is astonishingly messy. Seeing the work room, you begin to understand how this artist, who makes rigorously intellectual work exploring systems theory, could also put himself through school working as a lounge act FOLLOW UP TK and teach a seminar on Keanu Reeves. Prina has a mind that craves order, but there’s room in that mind for everything, including chaos--as long as it remains in the compartment he’s assigned it.

The subject of an exhibition titled “Retrospection Under Duress” opening this weekend at the Margo Leavin Gallery, Prina’s mixed-media work is evocative of ‘60s Conceptualist Lawrence Weiner in its preoccupation with language. Exploring the ways we create and assign meaning, his art is grounded in his belief that “there’s no such thing as nonfiction. It’s been said that all we do is misinterpret the information we’re presented with and that objectivity is impossible, and I agree with that,” the 41-year-old artist says. “History is always subjective, and the systems by which we assign value to things like artworks are always in flux.”

Born and raised in a small Midwestern town, Prina was the third of three sons in an Italian immigrant family that owned a market in Galesburg, Ill. “It was a funny town,” Prina recalls, “because though it was very small, there was a college nearby [Knox College] so people like John Cage would come there to lecture.”

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When Prina was 10, his sixth-grade teacher noted his ability to draw and recommended to his parents that they enroll him in an art class; thus began his art education. Competing with art for Prina’s attention was pop culture.

“In junior high,” “I got a guitar and started playing in rock bands, but I became disillusioned with pop music fairly quickly and moved on to jazz, after which I became involved with experimental music,” says Prina who would later put himself through school by working in various bar bands.

“When I was 14, my oldest brother took me to the Art Institute of Chicago, and I have vivid memories of seeing work there by John McCracken, Clyfford Still and Ed Moses. It really excited me, so I began talking about art school,” he continues.

“My father tended to look at things pragmatically and felt any aesthetic drive should be channeled into something practical. So we agreed I’d study architecture, and in 1972 I enrolled at the University of Illinois. Two weeks before classes were supposed to start, I enrolled in a local junior college instead and started studying art.”

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In 1974, Prina moved on to Northern Illinois University, pursuing painting and music. “Ad CQ? Reinhardt was important to me then, as were Minimalism and Conceptualism, but all that work had already been historicized,” he recalls. “At the time I was making serial work incorporating photography, sculpture, language and found materials.”

Graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1977, Prina came to Los Angeles the following year to do graduate work at CalArts. “I chose CalArts because I admired the work by John Baldessari and Doug Huebler, both of whom taught there, and because the school had a reputation for being involved with theory. Classes in theory were hard to find then,” Prina says.

“While I was at CalArts, I was reconfiguring compositions by [Arnold] Schoenberg into sound installations,” he recalls. “That work marks the beginning of an interest in Appropriation that came to dominate my work by the late ‘70s. At that point I stopped looking for neutral materials to work with and started using materials that already had a history, which I played off of.”

With his master’s degree in hand, Prina landed a job teaching the history of 20th century avant-garde music at Art Center, where he continues to work (this semester he’s teaching a class on German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder). His first solo show was in 1988 at New York’s Luhring Augustine Gallery (his fourth show at that gallery opens March 2), and for the past 12 years he’s shown regularly in Europe, where his work draws its largest audience. (He has a show opening at the Galerie Gisela Capitain in Cologne this May).

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Prina’s show at Margo Leavin combines elements from three series. “Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet” is a long, ongoing project based on the work of Edouard Manet. For each of the 556 paintings completed by the French 19th century artist--who is often referred to by historians as the first Modernist--Prina creates an abstract, sepia-toned ink-wash drawing of the same dimensions. Each drawing is paired with a lithograph of a grid that enables the viewer to see Manet’s complete oeuvre and where the accompanying drawing resides within it.

“I work from this Cliffs Notes-type book on Manet that’s riddled with inaccuracies--but I’m not interested in truth, I’m interested in representation,” Prina says.

Also on view is a series of 35 photographs based on a scene from Robert Bresson’s film “The Devil, Probably,” depicting a man attempting to drown himself in a bathtub. “Film has been a huge influence on my work,” says Prina, who mentions Jean-Luc Godard, Fassbinder and American independent filmmakers Tony Conrad and Hollis Frampton as having been particularly significant for him.

The final third of the show is a sculpture based on “Dom Hotel, Room 101,” an installation Prina did in New York in 1994, which was based on a book he published in Cologne that year. Titled “Johanna Faehmel’s Monologue,” the book took as its starting point a chapter from Heinrich Boll’s novel “Billiards at Half-Past Nine,” which was adapted by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet into the 1965 film “Not Reconciled.” Prina’s book was unveiled in a signing at the same Cologne hotel where a scene in the film is set.

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“Nobody could have access to the extensive subtext built into these pieces, but that’s intentional,” Prina says. “Contrary to what’s been said of my work, the viewer needn’t have any background information in order to ‘get it.’ None of us is a completely competent viewer in terms of having all the background information that infuses an artwork with meaning, but different things trickle down to each of us.”

Taking up any spare time Prina has is the Red Krayola, a local musical outfit he joined in 1994. One of the first psychedelic bands of the hippie era, the Red Krayola has survived with a changing roster of personnel since 1966. Slated to record an album this year for Chicago’s Drag City label, the group invited Prina to join as vocalist and keyboard player after seeing him give a solo performance DOING WHAT? at LunaPark two years ago.

Of the disparate threads that make up his creative practice, Prina says, “When I first started making work, I struggled to figure out how to bring the different things I’m interested in together, but I finally realized I wasn’t interested in synthesis.

“What I’m interested in is raising specific kinds of questions,” he says. “Questions like: What if it was this way instead of that way? How does one approach things, ranging from a small object to an entire history, and is it possible to design a new method of approach? For me, these are the issues art must concern itself with, because if art has any practical application at all, it’s as a tool for understanding the way we make meaning.”

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“RETROSPECTION UNDER DURESS,” Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 Robertson Blvd. Dates: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Ends Feb. 17. Phone: (310) 273-0603.


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