Richard Prince’s image of Shields shows her from the knees up, naked, oiled and wearing make-up, looking directly at the viewer. It is hung in a special room at the south London gallery with a notice on the door warning visitors they may find the image “challenging”.
Prince himself described the 1983 work, which is in fact a photograph of a photograph taken by another artist, Gary Gross, as “an extremely complicated photo of a naked girl who looks like a boy made up to look like a woman”. The picture was originally shown anonymously in a disused shop in a run-down area of New York, and the Tate show is believed to be the work’s first appearance in a UK gallery.
This controversy is a bit different, it’s a challenging subject with an interesting legal history.
the original Gary Gross photograph is a very sexualized image appearing in a very sexualized context. It was arranged by Shield’s mother and was published widely in magazines
Brooke Shields posed for him both as a normal young girl and in the nude, her body heavily made up and oiled, receiving a fee of $450 from Playboy Press, Gross’s partner in the project. Her mother signed a contract giving Gross full rights to exploit the images of her daughter. The series was first published in Little Women, and then in Sugar and Spice, a Playboy Press publication. Large prints were also exhibited by Charles Jourdan on 5th Avenue in New York.
Brooke Shields tried unsuccessfully to get the negatives back when she was 16. Embarrassed by the photographs, she attempted to contest the rights that her mother had given to Gross for the distribution of the photographs.
11 years after the legal battle started, artist Richard Prince purchased the rights to the photographs from Gross. Prince is well known for his reinvention of other artist’s photographs by photographing the originals and changing their feeling. the re-interpreted work is darker, more ominous and seedier- but somehow does change the original image. is it still sexualized? yes, but this time it doesn’t appear to celebrate the fact. the Tate is correct, it is a very challenging piece. it’s uncomfortable and disturbing. but I find the original more so.
The context that the piece is presented in also changes the perception of it. The exhibition Pop Life: Art In A Material World opens at the Tate modern in London on October 1 and runs through to January. there are a number of sexually explicit works from many different artists, making this a very contentious exhibition all up. strangely nobody is talking about the images of penetration or works created from porn. I think it is brave of the Tate to put on an exhibition of this nature and I will be interested to hear more as it opens.
Jack Bankowsky, the exhibition’s co-curator, said he hoped the artistic interest in ‘Spiritual America’ would not be overshadowed by controversy over its content.
“I hope that people respond to what is provocative and understand what the artist was trying to achieve,” he said. “If it turned into that kind of brouhaha it would overwhelm the work and become a monosyllabic conversation.”
Prince wanted the viewer to respond to the “eerieness” of Gross’ original image, Mr Bankowsky said.
A spokesman for the Tate said they had given careful consideration to the work and the reaction it could provoke before including it in the exhibition.
“As with any artwork that contains challenging imagery, Tate has sought legal advice and evaluated the situation,” the spokesman said. “Tate has taken measures to inform visitors of the nature of the work, providing information outlining the intentions of the artist. “This is an important work by Richard Prince which has been publicly exhibited on a number of occasions, most recently in Richard Prince’s major retrospective, Spiritual America, at the Guggenheim in New York.”
I want to go into my personal opinions about the work more in a later post.