Last Saturday night, I swept my eyes from left to right, then back again, over photographer Denise Prince's four pieces at CentralTrak as if I was flipping through pages in a magazine. On another wall, there was a bigger neon display, its bold blues and pinks distracting you from the bigger picture: In one corner, there is an impossibly polished model, and in the other, you are looking at a dead woman.
Over the last few years, Prince, who grew up in Dallas, has been recreating images from a 2009 Missoni ad campaign, called Replication and Breakdown of the Missoni Estate Line Catalog. She assigned the model roles to women and men who'd experienced physical trauma or deformity. In the above case, she photographed a recently deceased woman in India and juxtaposed her with the ad's original model.
The pieces were part of CentralTrak's current That Mortal Coil exhibit, which focuses on more radical depictions of the body and contemporary beauty and fashion. Her models were there among Ari Richter's heavily contested "Wolf Dong," R.E. Cox's architecturally precarious prosthetic leg sculptures, and Nina Schwanse's "Squirting" video series. It was a lot to take in.
Which is why I was so excited to know Prince's work would be psychoanalyzed by Dr. Charles Merward, her L.A.-based shrink, at CentralTrak a few days later, during a talk called "Not on Speaking Terms."
"In 2009 I went to an artist's residency in Vermont and met a woman who was in [Lacanian] psychoanalysis," Prince explains. "I had a therapist I loved but I'd had the sense I'd never get to everything. And when she described it -- speak without editing yourself several times a week - I knew this was what I had been looking for."
Merward, dressed in a tan suit and polka-dot bowtie, had a hard time getting to just what Prince's art is about, however. His opening line, "Everything is about sex, except the fucking," seemed more like the first lines of some off off-Broadway play than a nuanced segue into formal analysis.
And, yet, that was the idea. This was Prince's construct; she turned the tables and was deferring to Merward, but on her terms. They exchanged roles, much like she did with the models in her photos. This was a private relationship turned into performance.
And Merward performed. He spoke of "imaginary, dismembered pains and pleasures" when touching on the Lacanian concept of jouissance. Tipping his hat to poppa Freud, he repeated the phrase "hysterical economy" without delving into what the term really means, and attempted to wrestle with the burden of "ultimate meaninglessness." Prince's work was a type of psychosis. The analyst is part of the fantasy, he said, after an audience member inquired as to whether this was "an act."
Merward didn't assess each piece on display, which was a bit disappointing; he often just returned to her image of the deceased Indian woman. He mentioned the three Lacanian constructs: The real, the imaginary and the symbolic. The image is a prop, he says, which props up the burden of "what is impossible to say with her photos." One audience member asked Merward about transparency in her work. He volleyed back: "What do you think I mean about transparency?" Classic.
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The last third of the session, Prince broke her silence and spoke a bit of the process, and her relationship with Merward. Why did she stop seeing Merward? "He has exhausted my fantasy," Prince responded.
"I do enjoy my fantasy of what analysis is," she continued.
And perhaps that was the cosmic punchline: Prince's work is embedded in fantasy, but so is her analysis. Lacanian analysis does have a place in assessing feminist art, especially as built around the concept of the "gaze," but I often found myself with furrowed brow, attempting to decode Merward's psycho-lingo. At times, it felt like I was watching an awkward open-mic comedy night, though comedy and analysis are kindred spirits. When Merward took off his jacket to reveal his black and white piano-key suspenders, this notion became more amusing. (Thankfully no actual props were used.)
As an experiment, it didn't really work until the audience got involved, but there was something profound about peeking behind the curtain for a moment, to see the patient-analyst structure reversed as a type of performance. So often we want to "know" what the artist was thinking when they made a piece, or wrote a song, or authored a book. And so often, those things can't be revealed in an hour, nor should they be.