Cinematic in composition and scale, Prince’s photographic style is imbued with a timeless Hollywood opulence that draws from America’s rich history of film-making in order to address notions of mythmaking, machismo and nostalgia that operate at the deepest level of our consumer-driven and image-saturated contemporary world. Drawing from the tradition of artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Prince engages with advertising, appropriating its most recognisable images in order to question how the media dictates, displays and distorts the representation of reality for use as a seditious marketing tool. In the Cowboy series, Prince explores one of the great emblems of American culture – the cowboy – enlarging his readymade image to the status of high art. By removing the commercial slogans and logos from the Marlboro advertisements, Prince at once celebrates the artistry and slick production values of these images whilst simultaneously underlining the visual force of consumer culture and the constructed nature of cultural mores. In so doing, he exposes the figure of the cowboy as a Hollywood trope, dramatised, glamorised and romanticised in order to entice public consumption: “the bland normality of his Cowboy series,” writes Rosetta Brooks, “is like an outrageous celebration of the universal mythology of the Wild West” (Rosetta Brooks, ‘Spiritual America: No Holds Barred’ in: Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Richard Prince, 1992, p. 95).
The technique of re-photography, employed by Prince in the Cowboy series, became popular in the late 1970s. Other appropriation artists, including Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, rose to prominence in the East Village, New York, in the 1980s alongside Prince. These artists were greatly influenced by John Baldessari and Robert Heineken, who had worked with found or readymade print photography since the 1960s. In lifting and re-contextualising the image of the Marlboro Man as his own in Untitled (Cowboy), Prince grapples with pre-existing constructs of artistic creation whilst simultaneously seeking to unravel and reveal the culturally loaded and constructed nature of mass media images. As the curator Nancy Spector attests, “Prince’s appropriations of existing photographs are never merely copies of the already available. Instead, they extract a kind of photographic unconscious from the image, bringing to the fore suppressed truths about its meaning and its making” (Nancy Spector, ‘Nowhere Man’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, 2007, p. 26). Foregrounding the complex language of power at work in readymade images, Untitled (Cowboy) scrutinises the constructed cultural values at stake in the visual make-up of America.
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