Posted on May 01, 2019, 12:00 pm
19 mins

Placed in a low-lit bend of the Museum of Pop Culture, the Prince from Minneapolis exhibit is not what one might expect. Easter Sunday marked the third anniversary of Prince’s passing, and he remains one of America’s most influential and over-the-top pop personae. If you come expecting a celebration of his enduring presence, you will be disappointed, but what we get instead is still interesting for different reasons.

At MoPop’s exhibit, the purple for which Prince is known acquires a funereal tone. The photos and a few costumes under muted light are ghostly. The few artwork installations inspired by Prince range from crop art (a naive portrait that much rather resembles Little Richard), to a large mural by Rock Martinez, to a series of photographic homages by Troy Gua. In the context of the surroundings, even these feel strangely elegiac.

Would Prince have wanted it this way? None can say. But what may not be evident walking through the exhibit is that this is a totally unofficial exhibit. That is, the estate has no part in it. It was originally organized by the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis, the city where Prince began his career and made his home, Paisley Park.

Paisley Park is now the official museum for Prince, where people wanting the immersive Prince experience can find it appointed according to his desires. The Weisman wasn’t about to compete with that. Instead, the curation for Prince from Minneapolis shines a light on the musical history of the city and region, Prince’s pivotal role in it, and his own roots. The original exhibit was very much geographically rooted, and there was no plan to tour it initially, but MoPop managed to talk them into bringing it to Seattle. So what do we have here?

Minneapolis in Seattle

The Museum of Pop Culture was formerly the Experience Music Project, originally conceived as the Jimi Hendrix Experience Museum. The building, designed by Frank Gehry, is an abstract homage to the iconic moment Hendrix smashed his guitar on stage. When founder Paul Allen passed away in October of last year, the white Stratocaster played by Hendrix at Woodstock was one of two items displayed in memoriam at MoPop. (The other was Spock’s tunic from Star Trek.) The imprint of Hendrix is all over the museum.

Marie France, The Kid signature shirt from Purple Rain (1984). On loan from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Photo by Jonathan Pulley, courtesy of MoPop.

That in itself is interesting, because Prince was often compared to Hendrix or treated as his heir, to his consternation. He saw this comparison as an oversimplification that lumped flamboyant black performers together without real consideration for the music. Indeed, they were both master guitarists, but Prince himself rightly counted the sweet clarity of Carlos Santana as a stronger influence than the bluesy Hendrix.

Still, there was no antagonism. Prince himself performed for a Hendrix tribute album, making “Red House” into “Purple House.” And if anyone else besides Wolf Blitzer wants to confuse “Purple Haze” with “Purple Rain,” that’s their problem.

The point is, despite the complicated history of the brands involved (MoPop and Prince), the Museum of Pop Culture seemed an obvious choice to host from Minneapolis. They could even augment it with outfits from Prince’s performances and several guitars also in Paul Allen’s collection. But MoPop’s curator Brooks Peck decided to just include a single guitar and two partial outfits, citing his concern that too many objects would overwhelm audiences.

I wasn’t raised with Prince’s music, and by the time I was allowed to listen to pop music, he had moved from being a sex symbol to spurning the sexuality of others, following his conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness. I therefore do not call myself a Prince fan, but even I was disappointed by the paucity of artifacts.

Exhibits like this are an opportunity to connect with the human side of individuals that the camera has elevated to demigod status. Prince assiduously sought and fashioned his own pop apotheosis, which makes his elusive human side more compelling. We get glimpses of it in the Seattle iteration from Minneapolis, but it feels more haunted by missed opportunities than by Prince himself.

Taking the stage at the stormy 2007 Super Bowl Halftime show, Prince famously quipped, “Can you make it rain harder?” The Prince brand was rooted in theatrical drama and flair as much as it was in musicianship. Though Prince from Minneapolis does not “make it rain harder” (not even in wet Seattle), it looks behind the curtain a bit…to the small extent that he allowed.

The Once and Future Prince

There are few artists today who so carefully limit access to their inner lives as Prince did. To the contrary, in Reality TV era, the strategy seems to have flipped. Look at Beyonce’s Homecoming, released in April. Though the intimacy it suggests is a tightly edited performance in itself, it is a perfect example of how many performers, actors and artists are presenting as just more exquisite versions of regular folks, not unapproachable enigmas.

…the Prince that we get in Prince from Minneapolis is not the Prince that the artist created for himself.

For example: In Homecoming, Beyonce talks about the physical demands of giving birth and mothering children and how that necessarily diminished her creative output. That’s some earthy, unfiltered stuff. Contrast that with the gossip-bait that the Prince camp cultivated. E.g. Patricia Kotero’s marriage was kept secret while she worked with Prince as Apollonia. This was done explicitly to maintain an air of romance around her and Prince, a hint of carnal passion between artist and protegé. Prince’s brand thrived on the mystery—the “Controversy,” if you please—and to that extent, the obscure lighting in the MoPop exhibit is appropriate.

Because again, the Prince that we get in Prince from Minneapolis is not the Prince that the artist created for himself. We see images of that artist on one wall, across from photos of young Prince Rogers Nelson, the athlete, the shy model. We see the transition, with early photos and a contact sheet from a photo shoot in which Prince was trying on different poses and personae. The ones in which he smoldered more than smiled—those are circled in pink. Those are the ones that he wanted.

Allen Beaulieu, “Prince Looking,” 1982. Copyright Allen Beaulieu.

From the start, Prince was working with photographers to find the image that he needed to take his music as far as it could go. The fact that he recognized the importance of this, invested in photography, and then made these decisions for himself shows how truly shrewd he was. He knew what his audience wanted before they did (something almost Baroque, with a residual disco sheen), and it was not what others were expecting. Being the polymath that he was (writer, performer, producer, designer, actor, et al), he wasn’t just creating a pastiche from what was already popular; he was creating a total image, a world in itself.

This meant, however, that he would always need to control that image, that world, to seal it almost hermetically. Backstage photos are rare. Interviews only became more rare as time went on. So we don’t get much of that at the exhibit, but what we do get is enough to evoke the care that he took in maintaining that distance between the person he was on stage versus off.

And ultimately, for all his understanding of what it took to be famous, the fame was a means, not an end. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Prince downplayed his own intimidating reputation with interviewer, Dorian Lynskey:

“A lot of that comes from other people. The press like to blow things out of proportion so this person becomes bigger than they are. The sooner this thing called fame goes away, the better. We got people who don’t need to be famous.”

Though one might see this statement as hypocritical given Prince’s penchant for showmanship, he probably would not see it that way. There seems to be a distinction between people who have hacked the media game (#breaktheinternet) for mere personal enrichment, and those who use those skills to give space to a genuine artistic expression. One cannot deny that Prince was the latter, whether one is personally a fan or not.

The Art and the Artist

So back to those artworks in Prince from Minneapolis: Among the five homages from artists in the exhibit, two in particular stand out. One is a duo of sculptures by the De La Torre Brothers. The other is a collection of nine photos from artist Troy Gua’s Petit Prince series.

These artists were included in the original show in Minneapolis, but Gua is Seattle-based and the De La Torre brothers are represented by two local galleries: Prographica / KDR Gallery and Traver Gallery. (Those who attended the 2017 Seattle Art Fair may still remember the knock-out, phantasmagoric booth presented jointly by the two galleries, featuring the brothers’ lenticular and glass sculptures.)

Thus, the Seattle connection is a coincidence (unless you believe there are no coincidences), and again, the curation is—shall we say—minimalist. The didactic texts are rather limited, so I reached out to the artists to get more insight into the works.

Einar De La Torre and James De La Torre, “Principe Morado (Purple Prince), 2016. Installation view from the Weisman Museum, with Troy Gua’s Petite Prince series at back.

The style and multimedia methods of the De La Torre’s two sculptures are immediately recognizable, and in the artwork, so is Prince himself, despite being rendered as a squat calaca beside a small, quadruped.

Via email, Einar de la Torre explained that the creature is a Tonalli, a Mesoamerican spirit animal with solar associations, similar to a totem. (In Nahuatl, the word means “daysign.”) These works are part of an ongoing sculptural series by the De La Torre Brothers based on well-known personalities. This particular pairing, however, came from a direct witness of the grief following Prince’s death.

Einar de la Torre writes, “We were invited artists to University Wisconsin River Falls a few years ago, and Prince died while we where there, so we saw the mourning party in the streets of Minneapolis, St. Paul and were quite moved by the public display. We made the pieces while in residency, wanting to give Prince a sort of homage.”

For artist Troy Gua, the homage has been years in the making, and even required him to learn new skills along the way. In 2012, Gua had been making works that referenced existing artworks including Prince’s name and symbol, and he received a cease-and-desist letter regarding these works. Not wanting to fight a personal hero, Gua pivoted and began working with a 1/6 supermarionation effigy of himself, and began photographing it in poses inspired by Prince and other pop heroes, such as David Bowie and Luke Skywalker.

After honing his skills in photography, lighting and miniature staging, Gua returned to a more direct homage to Prince, with a supermarionation version of Prince which one can see in the nine photos at the end of the Prince from Minneapolis.

Why Prince? Gua talks of a the global Purple Family, which go by a variety of names: Princeheads, Prince Fams, True Funk Soldiers, to name a few. And many of them share the personal connection that Gua felt to the musician.

Gua explains, “I’ve said before that as a shy, awkward kid just discovering Prince, I felt like he was my secret escape into the utopian world he wrote and sang about, where everyone is FREE to be whatever they want to be, and dress however they want, and fuck whoever they want—y’know, consensually, of course—and sex and race truly don’t matter, and love is god and god is love. And then years later, I began making friends with so many others who felt the same as I had.”

“I don’t know if this sounds dramatic, but Prince has helped inform my fundamental essence, and I strive to be as prolific, as virtuosic, as genre-jumping and -bending in my art as he was in his. His work ethic, creative autonomy, defiance of conventionality, defiance in the face of pigeonholing/labeling, and his inexhaustible, undeterred determination to express himself by any means necessary and/or available will always help drive my own.”

Indeed, Prince’s influence is wider than some may know. Certainly, not everyone is aware that he wrote “Manic Monday” (sung by The Bangles, originally intended for Apollonia) or “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Sinéad O’Connor’s breakout hit), and projected video in Prince from Minneapolis showcases some of these works, alongside Prince’s own performances.

But the demanding work ethic and performances had their cost. Prince was trying to control intense hip pain caused by years of jumping off risers in heels when he accidentally overdosed on Fentanyl. (Tom Petty died a year later from a Fentanyl overdose, treating pain from a fractured hip while on tour.)

I asked at the beginning this essay, “Would Prince have wanted it this way?” Certainly, the artist had years of productivity ahead of him and vaults full of unreleased material. Prince from Minneapolis may not be a glittery celebration of the persona, but in its own odd way it is a small, obscure space to meditate on what it takes to achieve that. In MoPop fashion, it all ends with a photo op: One can take a photo seated atop a purple motorcycle a la Purple Rain. This is not exactly a surrogate for the full Prince experience that one might anticipate.

But for those who were fans of the artist, and who shared in his own conviction that the music—not the fame, not the image—was the meaning of it all, it may be worth a visit. In the words of another immortal prince: “The rest is silence.”

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.