In my last post, I discussed the Baby Doll maskers of the New Orleans Carnival tradition and their challenging of the Puritan notion of Providence introduced by Dr. Cope. Particularly, I focused on their collective ability to be at once child-like and suggestive, innocent and powerful, traditionally feminine and masculine. This duality is born from the Baby Dolls’ unique, signature appearance and from their audience’s misguided attempts to label, and subsequently understand, them.
Similarly, the first four pieces of Steve Prince’s Katrina Suite, entitled “Second Line I, II, III, and IV,” display a certain duality that puzzled me when I first encountered them. Each piece stars a horseman, a figure and symbol that is prominently featured in Prince’s body of work. The horsemen are clad in suits, ties, and massive, spiked shoes. Additionally, and quite conversely, three out of the four horsemen are portrayed holding a parasol, an accessory associated with the Baby Doll maskers and an arguable symbol of their femininity.
Furthermore, all of Prince’s horsemen are displayed in an extremely dainty fashion. This daintiness arises from the manner in which Prince has illustrated the horsemen, as all of the horsemen appear to be striking a deliberate, yet delicate pose. These poses visibly echo those featured in the works of the artists discussed in “Contemporary Artists Respond to the Baby Dolls: Artists’ Statements,” found within Kim Vaz-Deville’s book, Walking Raddy, particularly the poses portrayed by Ruth Owens with her “Baby Doll Series.”
After noticing that Prince’s horsemen and the Baby Dolls share the same stance (and after receiving some helpful feedback from Dr. McCoy), I was able to grasp yet another similarity between Prince’s art and the women who mask as Baby Dolls. The horsemen, like the Baby Dolls, straddle a line between masculine and feminine, dainty and deliberate, composed and chaotic. Ultimately, the act of straddling such lines grants both the horsemen and the Baby Dolls tremendous power since they cannot be easily defined or categorized and thus demand further consideration and thought from their audiences.
The Baby Dolls and their need for and attainment of power, particularly in the realm of sexuality, can be understood, at least in part, through reading the collection of works within Walking Raddy. Vaz-Deville’s work has aided me in understanding why the Baby Dolls choose to straddle the line and how the agency and pleasure they seek can be procured from such a practice. However, understanding why Prince’s horsemen straddle the line, what kind of power they can glean from doing so, and why the horsemen require such power, is a slightly more difficult task that relies on individual interpretation.
For me, my interpretation of the horsemen and their search for and claim of power began by researching the symbolism of the four horsemen. A simple google search reveals that the four horsemen are facets of Christian theology and are said to be the harbingers of the apocalypse. According to the Book of Revelations, the four horsemen represent warfare, famine, disease, and ultimately, death. Under the Christian depiction of the horsemen, they appear to be scapegoats of sorts for issues that are created by humans that affect other humans in disastrous, but perhaps avoidable ways.
This information, coupled with Prince’s works of “Second Line I-IV,” furthers the dichotomy seen within Prince’s presentation of the horsemen. While they are symbolic of destruction and death, they nevertheless appear dainty and even delicate. However, it is not within these particular pieces that I find the most striking line straddling that the horsemen perform. Rather, it is through the inspection of two other pieces within Prince’s Katrina Suite, “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge” and “Dirge,” that I clearly see the horsemen straddling the line in an attempt at empowerment.
This empowerment is achieved through the acts I have interpreted the horsemen to be performing. In “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge” the horsemen appear to be the catalysts to the action, seemingly causing the lightning bolts, pulling the gun triggers of policemen, and threatening to collapse structures in the lithographs background through the force of their tremendous limbs. However, the horsemen could just as easily be interpreted as pulling the policemen’s guns down, of shielding the structures from collapsing, and of pushing the storm away. Thus, they straddle the line between destroyer and protector.
This sense of line-straddling is promoted through the viewing of the succeeding work in Prince’s Katrina Suite, “Dirge.” In “Dirge,” the horsemen are shown lifting what could be interpreted as the city of New Orleans, above their heads as if it were a coffin that they are preparing to bring to rest. Again, the horsemen are portrayed as catalysts, though one is lead to wonder if they are interring New Orleans because they brought death upon it or if they are laying it to rest as a gesture of peace and respect. This question reinforces the idea that the horsemen straddle the line between destroyer and protector and raises another question, as well.
The question raised pertains to what I noticed within the Christian view of the four horsemen. Though the Book of Revelations depicts the horsemen themselves as heralds of the apocalypse, the line-straddling the horsemen exhibit within Prince’s work challenges this notion by portraying them as protectors as well as destroyers. This dichotomy, in concert with the line-straddling between delicate and menacing featured within “Second Line I-IV,” forces one to reconsider the Christian view of the horsemen as the enactors of death and destruction.
It is in this way that the horsemen claim their power, as Prince has allowed them to escape the blame of destruction through their dichotomous appearance. As with the Baby Dolls, their line-straddling and inability to be categorized correlates to the complexities and dualities found within all human beings. This correlation, supported by the heavy anthropomorphization and suit-wearing of the horsemen, shifts blame from the horsemen to the observer and to humanity at large. Prince’s horsemen challenge humanity’s damaging tendency of blaming the destruction they cause, either purposefully or inadvertently, on outside figures or forces, rather than recognizing their own actions and mistakes as possible impetuses.
Thus, the horsemen attain power by challenging their observers, causing said observers to question their roles and responsibilities in the world. Where the Christian depiction of the four horsemen encourages lack of responsibility and an element of passivity, Prince’s unique, contrasting, and continual use of the four horsemen iconography encourages individuals to assume responsibility for their actions and recognize that they can create change, be it as destroyers or, more hopefully, protectors.