Galesburg-born artist in 2008 Whitney Biennial


By Paulette Thenhaus


Who could have predicted back in the 1970s that a Carl Sandburg College art student would be in the 2008 Whitney Biennial? He would be one of those rare mid-career artists selected from the USA’s best, destined to make contemporary art history with his work?

Stephen Prina was born in Galesburg in 1954 and graduated from Galesburg High School in 1972. His artwork was recently chosen for the Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York which concluded June 1st. It is one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the nation — if not the world. In a review, “Spring in Dystopia,” by Gregory Volk, in the May edition of Art in America, a room Prina constructed was described as follows: “Stephen Prina… transforms a room at the museum so that it becomes an enchanting, rose-tinted elsewhere. With shipping crates that double as cushiony seating, a white curtain hanging in the middle, walls painted a light pink in sections, and a soft floor, his installation is welcoming ... but also vaguely eerie. Eight loudspeakers set on one wall and one loudspeaker on another emit the artist’s own music (performed by others)” The multimedia installation is titled “The Second Sentence of Everything I Read is You: The Queen Mary, 1979-2006.”

Stephen Prina’s talent is a hybrid model. He is an artist with an international reputation whose work comprises painting, photography, sculpture and music and performance art. He has released music through popular-music channels under his own name and The Red Krayola. As in the Whitney exhibit, sound and printed text are often an integral part of his installations. Sometimes text is the primary element in a piece. In a 2002 exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, he encircled the room with large transparent yellow vinyl letters which read “We represent ourselves to the world.” Conceptual art, such as this, is temporal art meant to be experienced in the moment. It’s not intended to be bought and sold or to be hung on a living room wall. It enters the world of pure ideas where producing actual products is secondary to the concepts explored.

Something of particular interest to Galesburg is my brief interview with Prina’s community college teacher, Joanne Goudie. He graduated in 1974 with an Associate’s Degree in art from Carl Sandburg College. Goudie remembers him as “outstanding but quiet ... quick to absorb things.” The Dada artist Duchamp was a favorite of his. She described a special project, an installation of sorts, he created on the campus lake which had a small island. It was a night “happening.” Black plastic and flares were placed in a pattern on the island. A pianist performed. At the intermission the flares were lit. Flames were reflected in a spectacular pattern on the water ... a mirror image of the lights glowed. Even at that early stage of his art career Prina was creating installations and introducing sound to them.

In 1978, with a B.F.A. from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Prina had an exhibit, “Related Projects,” at the Galesburg Civic Art Center. It was catalogued as a conceptional installation. In 1980 he received an M.F.A. degree from California Institute of Arts in Valencia. By 2002 his installations had reached Gallerie Gisela Captain in Cologne.

The artist must still love his hometown. He donated a very large work to the Galesburg Civic Art Center several years back. The act of painting is represented with superimposed washes of pale color. It was exhibited, in recent years, in a Permanent Collection show. That’s where this reviewer was first introduced to his work.

Maybe it’s time to take a second look. 


Stephen Prina teaches at Harvard University and splits his time between Cambridge, Mass. and his Los Angeles home.