In the process of putting together our blog post “Untangling Sustainability,” the group I was a part of spent a good chunk of time finding a definition for sustainable/sustainability that wasn’t attached to a moral value. What we came to was “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level,” which we were pointed towards by an online thesaurus that gave us synonyms for sustainable like continuous, continual, and unending. Briefly, we talked about how the concept of sustainability might visually manifest itself in Prince’s work, and while what we eventually wrote was a zoomed-out look at what his work might say or imply about sustainability in the world, I want to return in this post to what visual elements are literally sustained throughout Prince’s art.
Rather than take a primarily interpretive look at the repeating elements of Prince’s oeuvre, I’d like to identify what those elements are. In person, Prince pointed out to us the AOG badge that appears in works like “Rosa Sparks,” “Nine Little Indians,” and “Salt of the Earth,” which he told us was an acronym for “Armor of God” (though elsewhere he has said that it stands for “Agent of God”).
One of the first repeating motifs I noticed during the course was Prince’s use of variant solar symbols, which appear in several works. “Urban Mixtape 2” uses the alchemical symbol for the sun, as does “A Jazz Song With a Lot of Blue Notes.” In “Living Epistle,” prehistoric solar crosses float around like bubbles. Concentric circles resembling Puebloan solar petroglyphs sit at the top left of “Jubilee” and a more abstract, but similarly glyphic sun can be found in the same spot in “Requiem for Brother John.”
Most obvious to me as a repeated motif is the checkerboard floor on which many of Prince’s figures stand. “Rosa Sparks,” “Leviticus: Burnt Offering,” “Ezra: Reparations Groove,” parts II and III of the Prodigal Son triptych, and “Flambeau,” among others, feature variations on the black-and-white checkerboard. I’ve thought that the floor over which the subjects of Prince’s
art move might point towards a conception in work of history as being a game (chess or checkers), but this seems sort of a frivolous point and I’m not set on it. Other forays into the symbolism of a checkerboard floor have taken me towards Masonic sources and numerology, neither of which are angles I’m interested in exploring for fear that literary interpretation will turn into the episode of It’s Always Sunny where Charlie puts together a complicated web of office mail and red string searching for a person who he’s invented. Considering sustainability as continuity, the continuity of the checkerboard pattern especially interesting to me because it appears to have carried into his work from that of his mentor, the artist John Scott. When Dan DeZarn taught class on February 11th, he showed us images of Scott’s abstract sculpture: Untitled (10597) and Untitled (10595), both painted steel, stand on checkerboard bases. These sculptures, both from 1984, present material proof of the sustainability of mentor-student influence between artists, shown in a visual motif that reappears 30 years after we first spot it. Scott’s Steppin, from 1995, Contains many elements that are characteristic of Prince’s present-day work: the checkerboard pattern, a solar symbol at the top of the piece, and a female outline similar to the ones that appear in works like “Urban Mixtape 2.” My group pointed out in our post that Prince’s work “reaffirms the idea that ideologies and institutions outlive individual humans and thus are capable of propagating certain attitudes and practices that impact culture.” Looking at Prince’s work in relation to John Scott’s, it seems that Scott’s techniques, as small institutions, have outlived him as an individual.