The following excerpts are just a few of many praises for the work of Denise Prince, a Dallas-born artist working in photography, film, and performance art.
– “Excellent; very raw, mysterious, revealing, complex, and vulnerable, radically vulnerable.” – Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine
– “No one is making work like this.” – Anne Wilkes Tucker, Curator at Museum of Fine Arts Houston
-“Encountering the photographs of Denise Prince is like launching into a novel on a random page. You can only fill in so much…Stories started mid-stream leave you to fill in the blanks.” – Mary-Ann Connolly
After graduating from high school and working in Dallas, Denise lived in New York City while attending the School of Visual Arts in New York, New York, and later lived in California while attending the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. Denise moved to Austin in 2002 where she still lives and works as a full-time artist. In fact, Denise has only ever worked as an artist evidenced by her impressive exhibition history; she has participated in programming for Photo Vogue Festival in Milan, Italy, Off Bratislava in Bratislava, Slovakia, Barbarian Gallery in Moscow, Russia, LA Fashion Film Festival in Los Angeles, California, New York Photo Festival in New York City, Marfa Open in Marfa, Texas, Elizabet Ney Museum in Austin, Texas, and Women and Their Work in Austin, Texas. Her work is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and has also been featured in Vogue Magazine and on PBS Television.
Denise is renowned for exaggerating the visual language of fashion photography through her use of highly saturated colors and hyper-stylization to emphasize how commercial imagery functions in presenting an unreality as reality, inciting envy in consumers. In this sense, the subject of commercial imagery is not necessarily the advertised product, but the idea that we, the consumer, lack something, tricking us into believing that we need to buy that product to achieve the advertised reality. However, these advertised realities are not realities at all, but commercialized unrealities that are created to inspire dreams of pleasure, desire, travel, and physical beauty. Commercialized unrealities are part of a larger structure that keeps consumer culture viable by presenting idealizations of who we could become by using photography to blur the divide between reality and fantasy, enabling consumers to project subjective desires onto commodities.
In her work, Denise points to this structure by disrupting the commercialized fantasies that we have come to expect. In Captivating Not Captive (also referred to as the Missoni series), Denise inserted individuals that, by nonsensical standards, are considered to be outside of normalized “beauty” constructs into luxury environments with luxury goods, subverting our expectations about what kind of bodies are featured in high fashion advertising campaigns. Denise implies a familiar narrative by using a high-fashion context, then confuses our presumptions of who will occupy that context — a common approach in Denise’s work. In doing so, Denise signals our attention to the ideas that inform how we create meaning and how meaning is influenced by societal systems and constructs, as well as personal experiences and desires. Among the luxury goods, the models’ stiff posing and unemotive expressions indicate how people are also used as props in commercial imagery to inspire consumers to buy objects that will fulfill their fantasies and contribute to their sense of self. Such tactics are effective because they confirm capitalist-informed beliefs that, in the words of John Berger from his 1972 four-part docuseries Ways of Seeing, “you are what you have.” Our possessions validate our sense of self, and our sense of self is reflected by our possessions. We make judgments of one another based on the objects we collect, reading into their symbolic meaning as we would an object in a still life. Denise films the models dressed in brightly colored garments with clashing patterns, surrounded by stage sets bearing paintings of classical architecture and lush landscapes. By filling the frame with luxury goods and classical settings, Denise is referencing the lineage between the tradition of European oil painting and the camera’s role in commercial imagery.
In her most recent body of work, The Conceptual Still Life, Denise uses photography and the tradition of the painted still life to further explore our relationship to object possessions and personal fantasy. Drawing stylistic influence from both European oil paintings and commercial imagery, including Georg Flegel’s Still Life with Parrot and vintage cookbooks (with plans for an eventual publication as a photography book including recipes), Denise maintains a direct reference to the relationship between oil painting and commercial photography that Berger explored. In this series, Denise fuses traditional still life techniques with the history of women entertaining to examine how fantasies of ourselves are constructed through both the collection of objects and the creation of atmospheres. Decadent desserts and floral arrangements have been staged alongside ornate platters inside lavish environments featuring embellished interiors and lush foliage, exuding an overwhelming sense of indulgence in, and an abundance of, the finer things. Denise is teasing at our tendency to present our “best” objects when we host and entertain others as a means to convey the fabricated fantasies of how we are read by others. Nodding to how we read ourselves and others as objects, Denise has remained loyal to the painted still life’s tradition of object symbolism and memento mori. In The Souls of Man, two hands pass a white dish across the table containing maraschino cherries. A platter of pastries (known as Breasts of Saint Agatha, a tasty homage to a martyred saint that was tortured by having her breasts cut off), is adorned by the same cherries. According to Denise, maraschino cherries symbolize the souls of man. Their presence seems to remind us that we indulge in aesthetics, commodities, and beauty as devices of comfort that aid us in distancing ourselves from our inescapable mortality.
Denise’s artistic practice is rooted in critical theory and psychoanalysis, using photography and film to stimulate reflection on how commercialism and societal constructs reinforce personal fantasies that service perceived self-realities. Exploring the buoyancy of Platonic Idealism, Denise’s work uses strategic signifiers to disrupt implied narratives, assisting viewers in understanding how meanings and ideas are constructed (and often take hierarchy over physical form) based upon subjective experiences and desires. Exploring both the commercial structure of fashion photography and the European still-life tradition, Denise Prince’s work serves as a visual reminder that there is no dream product or pretend fantasy that can cheat the reality of death.