I first came to know the art of Rick Prol in the 1980s when he was with B-SIDE gallery, a space run by artist Caren Scarpulla who too had a feel for the hideous/beauteous aesthetic. At that time, Prol’s difficult imagery, cutting painting style, bizarre juxtapositions and fantastical combinations of impossibly difficult architectural elements rendered simply were a huge part of the East Village art scene.
With my recent visit to the prestigious Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art I was happily reacquainted with a number of seminal works from back in the day, which were displayed alongside some of Prol’s newer creations. All of the works have the same impact to me as they did twenty-five years ago -- the drama, the angst, the inner turmoil is still there as the souls of his subjects are laid bare against solemn city scenes that offer no hope. It is also important to note that there is strength in his subjects, a defiance that only years of withstanding bad luck and abuse can bring.
Ultimately, it’s that primal will to survive that he conveys so well in his subjects. We all have it. Most haven’t had to deal with a back filled with nails or a neck riddled with knives, yet there is a connection we all make to these paintings. Maybe it is in our dreams, or maybe it’s our worst nightmares but there is a connection within us that is tweaked – deep in the recesses of our semiconscious thoughts.
Rick Prol, Soil, 1982-3, mixed media on broken window, 29.5 X 32 inches.
I liken Prol’s aesthetic to the Beat Generation where you often see that same rawness, the angular shapes and the emphasis on texture and tone. However, Prol made it his own by capturing the pressures and pleasures of 1980s downtown city life, which was in large part built around a desire for experimental living and partying. Personally, I am most fond of his ability to integrate and elevate the most decrepit of found objects with works like Mort Subite (1985), Soil (1982-3) or Cook (1985). Here, the artist uses broken windows as a framing device. Actually, let’s not call them framing devices – they’re much more than that. In using these discarded windows, Prol preserves an emblematic piece of the past – a remnant of the East Village when it was populated or frequented by individuals loaded with energy and edginess and a penchant for kinky abuses.
What Prol paints and places behind the broken glass, which at times, bears the reinforcing wire that failed to lessen the chance of it being broken, is art that functions much in the same way as ancient icons did in spreading the teachings of the Bible to the illiterates. However, with Prol, the art speaks of survival, relationships, fashion and bodily functions -- something like a 1980s version of Hieronymous Bosch or Pieter Bruegel.
Rick Prol, The Pool, 1986, acrylic and paper on canvas, 72 X 190.5 inches.
In The Pool (1986), a large three-sectioned canvas that features long pieces of old found wood as its frame, Prol adds bits of blank or printed paper across the painting’s surface. The main subject, a blue figure that lounges in a pool of red, orange and yellow liquid, appears inside three loosely formed geometric spaces that divide the body in illogical ways. In contemplating The Pool, I am reminded of two facts from the East Village of the past. The first would be the frequency of use of the 8.5 X 11-inch photocopied paper in the 1980s as a primary and secondary medium. This was a time when photocopy stores had lines of artists waiting to make copies of everything and anything for their art. Secondly, Prol’s blatant use, or misuse of the geometric shapes as a compositional element here epitomizes, for me, the warning shot that the East Village Art Scene aimed at the New York Art World establishment, which at the time, was dominated in part by Minimal and Geometric Art.
A visit to Rick Prol: A Retrospective Look at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art will have great meaning for anyone who remembers the heyday of the East Village. Those who are not familiar will be exposed to some of the most energetic, wrenching and raucous art work they are likely to ever see.
(Image on top right: Rick Prol, S.O.S., 2009, Gouache, 30.5 X 44 inches.)