“We were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair, when we get bored we like to sit around, sit around and stare, at the mountains, at the birds, at the ocean, at the trees, we have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please.” — Bethany Cosentino, of Best Coast
The sentiments of Bethany Cosentino from the band Best Coast float through my head whenever I view the artwork of Los Angeles–based photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager. A young, up-and-coming figure in the art world, Prager exhibits a love for saturated color photography and highly constructed melodrama that encapsulates what it sometimes feels like to grow up in Southern California. Her artwork, in all its conceptual shallowness, reminds me of my own childhood out West — that lurking feeling that there’s something infectiously cinematic about the City of Angels.
In her latest New York show, Face in the Crowd, Prager is exhibiting in both of Lehmann Maupin Gallery’s Manhattan locations, with large-scale photographs housed in one and a three-channel film and film stills installed in the other. Her photographs are a cross between the kind of editorial spread you might see in an arty fashion magazine and the photorealist celebrity paintings that hang in hip restaurants in downtown LA. They’re unavoidably derivative of an aesthetic one would normally associate with the Pictures Generation, particularly Cindy Sherman, and they are perhaps too deeply influenced by old Hollywood cinema. At times they look more like retro advertisements, fashion spreads, or film stills than they do contemporary art, but it’s also their similarity to these familiar images that makes them so appealing. A newcomer to photography and a self-proclaimed self-taught artist — Prager discovered William Eggleston while visiting the Getty Museum and afterward bought a camera and the components of a darkroom on eBay — she is nonetheless a master at styling and directing emotions, making her best images compelling and unpredictable.
A crowd can represent either a sea of anonymous faces or a slew of individual stories, and in her Face in the Crowd series, Prager wanted to explore these two radically different perspectives. Her aerial portraits are photographed in the film studios of Los Angeles on sets that depict timeless American locations: train stations, movie theaters, opera houses, crosswalks, beaches. Everything about the pictures, from the places to the people, is so contrived and staged that nothing is what it appears to be; every costume, wig, and facial expression feels more like a mask than an expression of individuality.
Prager says she was inspired early on by a Hollywood mural titled “You are the Star,” painted in the 1980s by Thomas Suriya, which shows iconic celebrities of different decades sitting together in a movie theater. As in the mural, Prager’s characters also pose uneasily, in a world a lot less glamorous than we’d like to imagine. She strives to photograph moments that are “beautiful but awkward,” and through her characters hopes to create a kind of “disconnected connection.”
Prager’s photographs strive to be frozen moments of quotidian life, but often look more like paused scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Though her images could be dismissed as derivative of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, their strength is that they reflect a critical awareness of our current cultural timelessness, embracing an aesthetic plight that is uniquely 21st century. Because of technology, the internet, and our general connectivity, the past and present exist simultaneously within our everyday lives like never before. We buy vinyl records and turntables as well as iPhones, touch-screen tablets, and digital cameras. Prager will combine old newspapers, glass Pepsi bottles, picnic baskets, plastic coolers, and headlines about Obama in a single image. She takes the fashion she likes best from past decades — mainly bright colors and interesting prints — but doesn’t bother trying to make her models look retro, creating clashing portraits of different decades that are mixed and matched with utter disregard for any semblance of authenticity.
That every trend is in style simultaneously is itself a prescient trend, and one that Prager understands and explores. It’s her historical nonchalance that makes these images so unmistakably contemporary, although sadly, this doesn’t always make them more thought-provoking. It’s difficult for Prager’s photographs to escape their own derivative appearance, and often they rest snugly within the grasp of the familiar, making them more forgettable than they should be.
Moving from staged photos to short films is a logical shift in medium for Prager. “I wondered what would happen if I showed the audience the moment just before or after one of my photographs,” she has said, and as it turns out, the result is vastly more interesting. Without creating much of a story or concept, Prager relies on a simple set of circumstances through which she can explore emotion. Unlike her photographs, which slide so easily into the territory of the Hollywood film still, the films are entertaining in their own expressive and provocative manner; their tone feels genuine and playful.
For the film version of “Face in the Crowd,” Prager cast the lovely blonde actress Elizabeth Banks. Projected onto three different gallery walls in a setup that feels too small for the work, Prager’s eleven-minute short cuts back and forth between documentary-style interviews of individual members of the crowd and Bank’s reactions to being both in and outside of it. The film manages to tell a somewhat lighthearted but still melancholy story about the number of people we walk past daily whom we never acknowledge.
In talking-head cameos reminiscent of scenes from the 1980 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, we hear snippets of stories from different people isolated against a black backdrop and tightly framed from the waist up. We suddenly see their faces, features, and emotions. What they say seems infinitely less important than what their bodies express. Cutting back to the crowd, we see Banks looking longingly towards it from behind a glass window, followed by her joyful embrace of anonymity when she finally does join in. New Yorkers know, perhaps better than anyone, that being lost in a crowd can be an oppressing or a liberating experience. Prager captures both of these feelings and allows her viewers an almost voyeuristic enjoyment of it.
Prager is a director of emotion, with a tried and true aesthetic that makes her work appealing. Though her images feels slightly displaced in New York City, they still evoke and embody that LA vibe: they’re Hitchcock, retro Hollywood, editorial glamour, and failed dreamers all rolled together. She beautifully illustrates what we’ve seen so many times before — pretty blondes, vintage costumes, Cindy Sherman–esque poses, old films, dramatic overtures, all of which we don’t mind seeing again. It’s arguably not the best way to make art, nor the best way to view it: her work could correctly be described as a guilty pleasure.
“I’d never thought of photography as an art form,” Prager told the curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography exhibition in an interview in 2010. “I’d never really thought about photography, to be honest.” Prager’s artwork says a lot about the influence a place and its individual culture can have over us. Leaving the gallery, I wondered if her final message might be a question: is it our lives we’re living, or other’s lives we’re watching?
Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd continues at Lehmann Maupin Gallery (201 Chrystie Street, Lower East Side, and 540 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until February 22.