Return to Sender
Dear Letter, go upon your way
over mountain, plain or sea
God bless all who speed your flight
to where I wish you to be.
And bless all those beneath the roof
where I would bid you rest
But bless even more the one to whom
This letter is addressed.
YRS IN ART,
As a teacher you never know what it is that your students are taking away from the table.
When I met John, around 1977, as a student of his at CalArts, his studio was on Main Street in Santa Monica, near Jeff Ho Surfboards and across the street from a 24-hour liquor store. The studio was huge, around 3,000 square feet, with very tall ceilings and no windows, a characteristic shared with his classroom at CalArts. It was previously the studio of William Wegman, and if you look closely at their videotapes from that period, visible in the background is the same crack in the concrete floor.
There was a huge work area with many tables covered with material of a variety of sources and types: color magazines, newspapers, TV guides, travel brochures, girlie magazines, film stills, production stills, philosophy and theory books, cookbooks, literature, biographies, car catalogs, and real estate guides. These lay alongside rolls of vellum, colored pencils and markers, masking tape, rubber cement, scissors, and X-Acto blades. Around this was a small kitchen, a bathroom with a work by Lawrence Weiner, a darkroom, a packing station for wrapping parcels, and a conversation pit with two sofas and comfortable chairs.
Facing a television running 24 hours a day, John positioned a 35mm camera on a tripod, with a timer attached, that shot images of the screen at random intervals. While we were sitting and talking in the conversation pit, you could hear the camera shooting. This camera setup produced source material for various bodies of work, including Blasted Allegories, which John was working on when I first started visiting him.
John used television, the newsstand, along with shops on Hollywood Boulevard, to amass image material from heterogenous sources. His program was anthropological in nature but fairly straightforward in practice: 1. collect material from various cultural sources; 2. analyze and organize according to type; and 3. re-organize within his own typological schema, to be altered and repositioned within new artworks. The work from this period clearly related to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose work John mentioned often and with whom he showed at Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf. While Hilla once said it didn’t matter who clicked the shutter—she or Bernd—John went further and just had a timer do it.
His studio was a kind of non-hierarchical sorting and collating station where selection and judgement had more to do with the use-value for a specific project than its individual aesthetic value. It’s taken me about 40 years to realize that this studio was the model I’ve used to structure all of my subsequent studio spaces. Like his, my studio consists of tables covered with source material, scissors, masking tape, and pencils, though I still don’t have a packing station.
Stephen Prina creates dense, multilayered systems that examine the construction and distribution of culture, as well as its reception. His departure points are often existing texts, musical scores, paintings, films, and other historical subjects. Regarding these strategies, Prina has noted that “artists take on ideas and things from the world, which they then modify and put back into circulation. I think of my work as translation.” In recent projects, he has turned to personal memories, despite a stated aversion to autobiography. English for Foreigners (2017) develops from an anecdote about his father, who as a young man played clarinet for the local band in his hometown in Northwestern Italy. When the Blackshirts arrived in town and demanded that the band perform the anthem of the Italian National Fascist Party, he took his cue and emigrated from Italy to the United States at the age of 17.
For this project for Magazine, Prina turns in tribute to another patriarch, John Baldessari, with whom he studied during the late 1970s at California Institute of the Arts, where Baldessari was a founding faculty member and an influential teacher for two decades. With a nod to Baldessari's celebrated 1972 video Baldessari Sings LeWitt—in which the artist sings Sol LeWitt’s 45-point tract on Conceptual art to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” among other songs—Prina sings the text from Baldessari’s 1966–68 work Painting for Kubler, set to the music for Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song “A Case of You.”
Introduction by Stuart Comer, The Lonti Ebers Chief Curator of Media and Performance