N Exhibition Fit 4 A Prince

An exclusive look at the all-encompassing salute to the Purple One on display at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle

Prince’s customed-designed Cloud Guitar / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

Prince is on the road again — at least, exclusive photos of him and artwork inspired by his life and style is. “Prince From Minneapolis,” an exhibition that originally ran at the Weisman Art Museum in the Purple One’s hometown, recently opened for an eight-month run at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP).

“The Weisman had no plans to tour the exhibition,” says Brooks Peck, MoPOP’s senior curator. “So we actually reached out to them and convinced them that we really wanted it. This show has just got MoPOP written all over it.”

As Peck sees it, there are two sides to “Prince From Minneapolis”: “It’s about image, and it’s about inspiration,” he says. “In terms of image, it’s about seeing Prince from his beginnings, working on creating his image. And the inspiration is the part that flows out from Prince. This exhibition contains a number of artworks and other things that were made by people who were just incredibly inspired by Prince, by his music, and also by his approach to life, to his art — that whole gestalt thing that is Prince.

An emerging image: contact sheet of Robert Whitman’s photographs of Prince / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

The exhibition’s first part focuses on the development of Prince’s image through his work with different photographers. A contact sheet of photos by Robert Whitman captures a 19-year-old Prince in the early stages of crafting that image. He’s bare-chested, using a white sash as a belt; in some shots he’s holding a small disco ball (it was the ‘70s, after all). What’s interesting about the pictures is seeing him trying out a variety of expressions for later review to see what works out best. In some, he’s smiling, looking something like a teen idol.

“How often did you ever see him smiling?” says Peck. “That’s the sort of Prince we rarely, rarely see.”

But in most shots, he has a more staid demeanor.

“Already, you can see, the more serious, smoldering, shirtless, sexy Prince is starting to come forward,” Peck says. “This is where it begins.”

All smiles when he started out; Prince at 19 / Photo of photo by Gillian G. Gaar

The other featured photographers trace the arc of Prince’s career, as he became more confident, and flamboyant: Allen Beaulieu, who began traveling with Prince in the early 1980s; Nancy Bundt, who photographed the “Purple Rain” tour; Terry Gydesen, who documented the 1993 New Power Generation tour, her photos later appearing in the book Prince Presents the Sacrifice of Victor.

In a panel discussion held the night the exhibition opened, Gydesen admitted she was not originally a Prince fan (there were audible gasps at that revelation from the true believers in the audience). Having been a staff photographer for Jesse Jackson, she worked in the world of politics, not music, but ultimately decided that going on tour with Prince would “probably be pretty interesting,” and her relationship with developed into one of great trust, so that she was welcomed into his backstage life. She’s not a fan of the paperback edition of Sacrifice (“They printed it on toilet paper”), but as both hard- and paperback editions are out of print, even the “toilet paper” edition will still set you back a few hundred.

Impressive Prince mural/ Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

The exhibition’s artwork gives Prince’s fans the opportunity to stretch their imaginations, featuring pieces that are “Quite eclectic, showing how different people from different walks and different disciplines are all into Prince and get inspired by Prince,” in Peck’s words. There are straight forward portraits, like Rock Martinez’s mural “I Would Die 4 U” — though it is twenty-four feet wide (the largest 2-D piece MoPOP has ever shown). Lillian Colton, described as a pioneer of “crop art,” uses more unique materials in her portrait: a variety of seeds (timothy, canola, baptisia, poppy) and ground white corn grits.

Prince gets the “crop art” touch from Lillian Colton/ Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

Troy Gua’s “Le Petit Prince” series has generated a lot of attention since making its debut in 2011. Inspired by the marionette figures in the 2004 film Team America, Gua made his own figure of his idol (one body, five different heads), then photographed the doll in different settings and outfits. The photos are the end product, with the eerily lifelike doll seen playing the guitar or on his motorcycle. “Prince has been part of my DNA since I was 13,” Gua explained at the panel, that being the age he first saw Purple Rain; he then saw Prince live in concert the following year. Gua vowed he was, “Going to keep doing the series until I can’t,” to the delight of the audience. (You can also see Gua’s photographs on Instagram, hashtag #LPPSaturday).

Pantone’s color in honor of Prince / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

What comes through strongly is how the artists take their own interests (crop art, doll figures), and then manages to give them a Prince-ly spin. “Principe Morado” (“Purple Prince”), created by the brothers Einar and Jamex De La Torre, reimagines Prince as a Day of the Dead figure, in a vibrant piece blending a glass sculpture with found objects. And while it might be called “The Prince Bike,” but the Erik Noran-designed transport is actually referred to as “rideable art.” Noran designed the bike for Anna Schwinn, granddaughter of the original Schwinn founder, and it’s a font of Prince trivia; in addition to being purple (of course), there’s a guitar pick used by Prince embedded into the handlebar stem, the brake levers are etched with crying doves (in reference to “When Doves Cry”), and the wheel rims featured the painted lyrics of “Purple Rain.”

And if you’re now inspired enough to make a tribute artwork of your own, why not consider using Prince’s official color? Pantone developed a purple color in Prince’s honor in 2017; technically named after the symbol Prince adopted in 1993 in place of his name, it’s more accessibly known as “Love Symbol No. 2.”

Cash register from the legendary First Avenue club in Minneapolis / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

MoPOP has embellished the Weisman’s exhibition by adding items from its own archives, “Just to get a little more Prince in,” says Peck. Most impressive is a vintage cash register from the First Avenue club in Minneapolis, looking worn and well used. Prince played the club on a number of occasions, and scenes from Purple Rain were also shot in the venue. The shirt and motorcycle jacket Prince wore in the movie are on display, and, in a fun touch, there’s a replica of the motorcycle Prince rode in the film. MoPOP bought a used model of the bike (a 1980 Honda CM400a Hondamatic) on ebay for $600, refurbished it, and set it up in the gallery as a readymade photo op for visitors. You’ll also find stage clothes from the Purple Rain tour, and a custom Cloud guitar, designed for Prince by luthier Andy Beech.

These ruffles were on display in the Purple Rain film / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

During the panel discussion, Gydesen stated she felt the exhibition looked “Better than it was at the Weisman” (“Different,” Peck tactfully amended). But Peck also sees a correlation between Prince and other stalwart MoPOP subjects. “Look at what else we do,” he says. “He’s like Jimi Hendrix. He’s like Nirvana. He came out of a scene and he had these musical ingredients that he recombined and made into this whole new thing. It’s interesting; we talk about something like Nirvana and the scene they were in, but I feel like Prince was his own scene in a lot of ways.” “Prince From Minneapolis” depicts that scene, and then beautifully reveals the inspiration people continue to derive from his work.

VIDEO: “Prince from Minneapolis” at MoPOP

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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