By Tobin Levy
Photograph by Minta Maria Smail
Even if you’re not familiar with Denise Prince’s work, chances are you have been touched by it. If you were in North Austin in April, you may have seen her standing on Burnet Road beneath a billboard featuring the words “Captivating Not Captive” and two gloriously unlikely models in repose. Prince was dressed as a wizard, reciting a manifesto on beauty. The proclamation, like the images on the billboard, were of her own creation.
Few local artists have been more prolific and intrepid than Prince in their exploration of the universal themes that are the underpinnings of our lives, including beauty. Through an array of mediums, including film, photography, painting and performance, she started presenting alternative interpretations of what it means to be beautiful before it was de rigueur. It’s largely because of this work that the 51-year-old has enjoyed a much-deserved banner year.
Prince has long been celebrated at Austin’s Women & Their Work gallery and is a regular recipient of the City of Austin’s grants for public works. This year she was one of 25 artists selected to participate in “New Monuments for New Cities,” the inaugural project of the High Line Network Joint Art Initiative, a collaboration among infrastructure-reuse projects across North America. She also secured representation at the gallery MARYMARY Projects in Tribeca. “I feel as though, finally, I’ve arrived fundamentally,” says Prince.
And there is more: Earlier this year, Prince’s video piece “The Lollipop Girls Struggle on the Hard Earth” was screened at the LA Fashion Film Festival. She found a fan in acclaimed photographer Ryan McGinley and a mentor in photographer Stephen Frailey, chair of the Photography Department at the School of Visual Arts and co-chair of its MPS Fashion Photography Program in New York. Prince also participated in major group shows in Italy, Norway, Slovakia, Finland and Brooklyn, and she was one of 10 artists commissioned by Vogue to reimagine the “Last Look” section of the September issue. It is as though culture, at large, is finally catching up with her. Or at least trying.
Prince has an acute awareness of the genesis of her creations. Her preoccupation with beauty as it relates to fashion stems from a childhood encounter with a billboard. “I remember seeing this image of a very attractive woman and having the realization that she was being treated as an object and setting a standard I couldn’t live up to,” says Prince, who grew up in Dallas. “It was a very powerful, very intense moment for me. The billboard I did on Burnet Road was a response to that. I became obsessed with commercial language, which had such a singular narrative and was so unmoored from reality. I think what I’ve been doing my whole career is trying to make my own language.”
Prince’s billboard was part of her “Captivating Not Captive” series, which began 10 years ago as a reimagining of a Missoni catalog. She replaced the fashion house’s heavily retouched models with individuals who have undergone physical trauma. They are mesmerizing portraits of ineffable qualities, highlighting the constructed nature of aesthetics and disrupting beauty norms in the process.
Though Prince regularly delves into the most difficult of human emotions, she has a rare gift for transforming inner tumult into buoyant expressions of empathy and insight, turning quotidian concerns into magical, wholly extraordinary experiences, as she did in 2016 with “L’enfant Terrible,” a multimedia happening. The event, hosted at an East Side venue, was inspired by Ludwig Bemelmans’ book “Madeline” and about the loss of childhood innocence.
For L’enfant, Prince installed 12 twin beds in the courtyard and choreographed a dance for 12 girls in 1950s dressing gowns. There was also a kissing booth and original photography, featuring the same children dressed as adults, handing out candy cigarettes and “prescription” bottles filled with sweets. The evening was a perfect example of the way Prince works. She cultivates single ideas into grand expressions of wonder. For her, going big is not an option but an inherent trait. Life as an artist is never easy, but for one of Austin’s most indefatigable creators it’s finally paying off.