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Review: History lurks in Stephen Prina’s sculptures at LACMA

Review: History lurks in Stephen Prina’s sculptures at LACMA
Installation view of Stephen Prina’s “As He Remembered It,” 2011, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
(LACMA)

Edouard Manet (1832-83) was arguably the first Modern artist. Partly that’s because the 19th century painter’s work was made in direct, conscious response to museum art — in those days a newfangled institution.

Before, painters and sculptors made art in response to popes, kings and burghers as well as to paintings and sculptures other artists made for popes, kings and burghers. But the museum was something new.

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The museum codified art and its history. Manet painted in the self-conscious hope of gaining admission to the ranks. In subject and style, his work crystallized a new artistic reality.

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The top floor of BCAM at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art looks a bit like a gallery of painted sculpture crossed with a thrift shop for salvaged furniture. Artist Stephen Prina filled the big room with roughly two dozen sculptures based on famous modern furniture designs. Manet lurks in the dresser drawers, under the sofa cushions and in the closets — in all the ordinary furnishings of daily life.

This furniture is made from ordinary plywood. The forms are rickety, and they range from elaborate ensembles to a simple rectilinear box and a couple of joined planks (a busted shelf?) that rest on the floor. One of the more extravagant incorporates a built-in banquette, a plain table with a bench and even an upright piano nestled in an alcove.

The objects are wonky but laid out in a neat, precise grid. Disorder is tidied up for museum display.

Last but certainly not least, all of it is painted pink. Yes, pink. Not a shy, pastel version of the hue but something closer to the shocking end of the spectrum.

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Pink, Diana Vreeland once helpfully explained, is the navy blue of India. Judging from “As He Remembered It,” the title of Prina’s weirdly absorbing installation of painted sculpture, the color is also a hedge against mortality. Impermanence is not what we expect from an art museum, but Prina’s sculpture insists on it.

His big pink installation peels like an onion, its layers slowly exposed. Along the way they generate a few tears, metaphorically at least, for the unstoppable passage of life and time. Take that peculiar color.

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To be precise, the sculptural components are painted Honeysuckle — a “dynamic reddish pink” that is “encouraging and uplifting,” according to the color theorists at Pantone LLC. That’s the New Jersey-based company that pioneered a system of professional color standards for the international printing and design industries.

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Color being notoriously irrational and difficult to describe — what, for example, is the difference between azure and sky blue? — the Pantone system was developed in the 1950s and ‘60s as a way to establish standardized pigments to which any manufacturer, anywhere, can refer. It puts everyone on the same color-page.

Honeysuckle was chosen Pantone Color of the Year for 2011, which is when Prina constructed “As He Remembered It.” (The installation was first shown that summer in the exhibition hall at Austria’s Vienna Secession; the LACMA presentation is part of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.) A marketing angle drives the Pantone scheme.

The company described Honeysuckle as “Courageous. Confident. Vital. A brave new color, for a brave new world.” Like termites feasting in a woodpile, nibbling around the edges of those enthusiastic terms is the unspoken social collapse of the Great Recession — our brave new world, which a coat of Honeysuckle might somehow ameliorate. (Think of Busby Berkeley’s movie chorines furiously tapping out “We’re in the Money” as the 1933 bread lines grew ever longer.) The annual corporate pitch is a mercenary diversion, Pantone’s colorful equivalent to Time’s Person of the Year or People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

As if color-moods shift in neat, 12-month increments to accommodate seasonal fashion trends, Turquoise got the Pantone nod in 2010 and Tangerine Tango in 2012. (Emerald — “a color of elegance and beauty” — is this year’s pick, so apparently the economy must be on the mend.) This psycho-social color palaver silently extols obsolescence, enhancing the melancholic edge of Prina’s installation. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Prina’s appropriation of courageous, confidant, institutionally sanctioned color pointedly removes his sculpture from the realm of elevated personal taste, which is where we casually assume artists reside. Similarly impersonal are the sculptures’ forms, also appropriated.

They copy inventive furniture designs for two Hollywood houses from the 1940s, now razed, by ground-breaking Modernist architect R.M. Schindler (1887-1953). The re-creations, torn from a domestic environment and reconfigured for the public space of a museum, are what Prina has described as being like amputated limbs.

In that, the installation is like most of the art in LACMA’s collection — say, a 17th century altarpiece that once would have been encountered in the solemn precinct of a European church, or a painted scroll that would be an alcove’s solitary focal point in an 18th century Japanese house. “As He Remembered It,” despite its stark differences from both an altarpiece and a scroll, establishes a self-conscious kinship with the art of the past.

Schindler’s wife, Pauline, who long outlived the architect, painted the interior of the house he designed for them pink. History lurks in Prina’s sculpture, just below its surface. The brushy, sometimes even sloppy pink paint-job allows darker, gray-green under-paint (presumably Schindler’s original colors) to peek through. Art, this painted sculpture asserts, always comes from other art — even when it doesn’t seem that way.

Prina’s appropriations of color and form might seem dryly intellectual, but they don’t feel that way when you’re in the room with them. The legacy is oddly personal. Partly it comes from the abject work’s emphasis on the handmade and partly from its sheer eccentricity.

The installation’s origins are tied to the artist’s own casual history. It was inspired by a memory of window-shopping with a friend on La Brea Avenue in the 1980s. The pair came across a bit of painted-pink Schindler furniture that had been severed from the house for which it had been made.

The installation embodies a deep element of generational change. Schindler, a Viennese expatriate to Los Angeles, died just before Prina was born. Furthermore, the artist came into the world at just about the same moment that Pantone did. “As He Remembered It” is a meditation on art and history, public and personal.

The mid-1950s was also a period when the idea of painted sculpture was a burning issue among artists and critics. Was sculpture intrinsically colorless, drawing formal integrity by showing the pristine wood, stone or metal from which it was made? Or was applied color an expressive possibility, too long overlooked?

Prina appropriated a found object as the engine for his installation, so its pink color is intrinsic, applied, integral, expressive — all of them. The gonzo museum installation is a sly and affectionate rebuke to the orderly categories museums invent for art.

The show, organized by LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory, includes a few additional Prina pieces to provide a bit of illuminating context. (One is a selection from a mid-1980s series based on the Modern paintings of Manet.) “As He Remembered It” circles back on itself, and with erudition and wit it circles back on art, history and memory too.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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‘Stephen Prina: As He Remembered It’

Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Through Aug. 4. Closed Wednesdays.

Admission: $10 to $15

Information: (323) 857-6000, https://www.lacma.org

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