Richard Prince’s recent series New Portraits sees the artist’s practice of appropriation invade the realm of social media. The sharing and democratic policy of social networks seems exactly what Prince was waiting to sink his teeth into. Instagram in particular – the online photo-sharing social platform that enables its users to share pictures and videos – is perceived by the artist as an infinite database of visual material to plunder. ‘It’s almost like it was invented for someone like myself,’ he said. Remembering when in 2010 Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched Instagram, Prince observed: ‘It’s like carrying around a gallery in your pocket … Everything became easy. It was enjoyable. It reminded me of a free concert.’
With 150 million monthly active users and 55 million photos shared every day, Instagram is indeed an almost infinite source of imagery and artistic inspiration, as well as a unique platform for artists to advertise their work and reach the masses without the need of intermediaries. Instagram’s crowd of followers is incredibly varied, and the percentage of actual potential collectors and buyers remains unknown. However, young art galleries are starting to browse social networks in search of new talent, reflecting the dematerialization of an artworld that is becoming more and more digital, open and interconnected.
Artists do not restrict themselves to use their Instagram profile as a virtual gallery where to exhibit a sort of self-curated show; the social network in fact allows them to display their taste and personality, each image being a visual embodiment of their aesthetic, a statement enclosed in the form of a small squared photograph taken with a smartphone. Tony Oursler’s Instagram profile, for instance, is a gothic array of cropped horror movies’ posters, anatomic drawings and Masonic symbols, a sample of his inspiration sources, a glance into his imagination.
Richard Prince’s engagement with Instagram goes even further: the appropriating aesthetic that has characterised his contested practice since the mid-Seventies finds its climax in his 2014 New Portraits series. Unveiling the ease with which people give away their privacy for heightened visibility and the narcissistic need for recognition, Prince insinuates himself in the Instagram profiles of young women. He comments on their photographs, screen-grabs the images and then has them printed in a very large format by his studio. In this process, the invisible public of Instagram users, whose vastness and sketchiness the girls probably never fully considered, is transformed in the more tangible presence of the contemporary art’s audience. In a similar way, the virtual space of the social network is mirrored in the physical exhibition spaces that hosted Prince’s works, such as Gagosian Gallery, New York (2014), and Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin in occasion of the exhibition Open Source: Art at the Eclipse of Capitalism.
For Richard Prince – who came out of the Pictures Generation group which began making art from re-appropriated mass-media photographs in the 1970s – these borrowed Instagram images address the way people present themselves to the world, making this self-exhibiting process explicit in all its ambiguous connotations. The viewer not only participates in Prince’s voyeuristic exercise, but also cannot help himself wondering how it would feel to be the subject of one of the artist’s ‘appropriations’. A manifestation of the frailty of copyright and privacy in a world overwhelmed by images whose source is hardly re-traceable, Prince’s New Portraits are a powerful account of the blurring of the boundaries between physical and virtual reality.