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Fantasy organizes our experience of everyday reality and tells us who we are. Using the language of advertising and fashion, Prince constructs saturated visions of desire with sincere deference to our awareness of mortality.
The Playground of Denise Prince
My mother convinced me that while I slept, my dolls came to life and frolicked and played dress-up and squabbled and held hands and danced—apparently her mother told her this story when she was a girl, and this underworld was true for my mom growing up. Denise Prince’s universe has the same autonomous heart, spinning like a carousel after the fairgrounds are shut down and locked, animated far beyond what she makes immediately seen to us.
When I look at this multimedia exhibition, I see a record of life—the frolicking, the fighting, the dressing up—being lived somewhere past this stolen glimpse. I see the documentation of a whole galaxy of emotions and relationships and sexuality, of cakes and chandeliers, of aging and loss, of badminton games and black gloves, of love. When we leave the gallery, these creatures continue with their mornings and their midnights, their teas, their kittens and irons and cherries. They keep running up the field and coming back and running again—infinitely.
Fantasy or science-fiction worlds are true when they’re built on internal logic, mythology, and a meaningful system of laws, and Denise Prince’s world grows truer with each exhibition. This current work includes new artifacts from Denise-Prince-land, and the scale of what looms beyond the visible is testament to the accuracy and power of these pieces.
There’s no exact date and time where we can locate this world, but many clues put us in a slightly futuristic, slightly nostalgic moment. The characters in this work all seem to be visiting from the late 1950s or mid-1960s, having just walked off the set of some French film or perfume commercial or an advertisement for biscuits. Or this is a future that is basically that world blown up and then stitched back together. The fact that the film is 16mm and slowed down enhances our sense of a lost and fluid era.
In a similar way, the place setting is “Frankenstein-ed” (as Denise would say) out of Los Angeles, Paris, an anonymous American suburb, Times Square, Texas, and a colony on Mars. It has beds from Madeline, and fields from Catcher in the Rye, too. Rooms that would make David Lynch or Wes Anderson feel at home. It’s a vanished world that we get to see again, even if it never actually existed except in our imaginations and in our favorite books and movies and magazines.
Its citizens are sewing-pattern models, paper dolls, characters out of storybooks or off salt boxes, creatures invited out of the collective mind of girls and women. This is who we should be, this is what we should look like, this is how we should act. And in particular: this is how we should grow up and who we should become. These are fantasies of identity, which are not always welcome but are too frequent and too omnipotent to avoid.
In the spaces between all these exact objects and exact faces, the narrative blooms, somehow not exact itself but truer for that. Just as a dream makes perfect sense—in your blood, in your bones—until you try to understand it.
It’s sort of like Prince makes a full revolution, starting the Lacanian cycle (that she’s used and discussed in past work) in a preverbal reality that is forced into symbols and language, but which she then miraculously brings back to its original state.
It’s proof of Prince’s authority that she turns all these postures and performances and personae, these knickknacks and antiques and knockoffs, into something real. She tells a story, through stick figures and schoolgirls, that is tender and irrefutable, that transcends words.
What this story pivots around, this way and that, is the fantasy we’re told as kids about the wonders and miracles of adulthood, and how we’re tricked, and how we can become bitter. This evolution can affect the core of our souls. We see in the film a chain of girls and women who trade places in being ambassadors to each other, being caretakers, chaperones, sisters, betrayers, mothers and grandmothers, rivals, daughters, best friends. We see secrets and rituals handed down from one generation to another. We see a girl looking up to and away from her predecessor, with adulation and fear and eventually even disgust. This is a very complex system of expectations hinging mostly on gender and partly on class.
There’s a sense of being hoodwinked, of the disappointment that results, and of being abandoned, and yet everything in Object Lessons at the very same time conspires to make us safe. Even the color palettes—which change from scene to scene in the film, or from painting to painting—soothe me. One color scheme will viscerally import an ice-cream shop in Italy, then it will molt to a hosiery drawer at some luxury store, or tropical feathers, or gum drops, or brand-new toys. And each set triggers feelings of innocence, promise, even if the character there looks oppressed or doomed.
Out of something confounding, Prince makes meaning for all of us. She establishes space for the mystery, builds a cradle (or twelve) to hold us in our vulnerable and baffled state. Or even better—she’s created a playground, where we get to work it out, we get to interact with the possibilities, the loss, the beauty.
In this way, she makes up for whoever led us astray to begin with. She makes up for whoever forgot to tell us about the dark side of growing up, of desire. Or whoever pressured us to be someone besides ourselves. With her symmetry, and perfect asymmetry, her juxtapositions and framing and angles, and brilliantly interlocking colors, she’s constructed a sturdy place where we can experiment with our memories, and our true and false selves, and our futures. The artist will watch over us so we don’t get hurt.