On Alex Prager at Lehmann Maupin

Marty Millman

Artist, photographer, and short filmmaker Alex Prager is at the forefront of the surrealism Resurgence. Prager creates elaborately staged scenes that draw inspiration from a wide range of influences and references, including Classical Hollywood cinema, experimental films, street photography, and other forms of popular culture. She evokes an atmosphere of ambiguity in all of her works by merging historical and contemporary perspectives. Her images conjure a sense of nostalgia while intertwining fiction and reality, crafting an unsettling aura around familiarity. Prager’s latest exhibition, Part Two: Run, which is currently showing at Lehman Maupin in New York, feels like a grand showcase of her ethos. 

Prager entered the world at the tail end of the seventies in sunny Los Angeles. In many ways, this landscape acted as a grand background to influence her life, her choices, and most importantly her art. After seeing an exhibition of William Egglestion’s stunning colour combinations at the age of 20, she became interested in photography. As a self-taught artist she found the sense of excitement and came alive through these still images. Initially conceived as black-and-white street photography, her work quickly evolved into hyper-stylized color portraits and group photographs. 

There is a sense of separation from reality in her work, an idealized fiction. Prager creates worlds that are familiar, yet cause a sense of unease, drawing inspiration from the fashion and context of the 1950s and 1960s in order to bring attention to layers of artifice that mask imperfections and true emotion. The notion of being truly seen is a running theme; Prager captures the anxiety of being perceived, that the worst parts of ourselves may be known and seen by all. No two people on this earth share the exact same way of thinking. Every individual views life through their own slanted perception of it – my world will never be known to you and vice versa. Yet there’s still this anxiety that someone may see past the veil, look into your soul, and truly see you. 

Prager’s entry into filmmaking was very abstracted from a desire to take a more immersive look into the stories she has created. There was a desire among her audiences for a narrative to accompany her photography. She shot the short film Despair (2010) with Bryce Dallas Howard, allowing viewers to be privy to the moments before and after a particular frame. The film enhanced the emotional range she could capture with her work and opened up more possibilities for her examination of self. In La Grande Sortie (2016) the audience sees through a dancer’s eyes on stage. Each member of the crowd steals a little piece of her until she’s all gone. Leaving the viewer to see themselves in a sea of anonymous faces. In mere moments, Prager establishes a mood, a feeling, that strikes the viewer so deeply. Her strength lies in nuance: bright colors, distinctly familiar visuals, and consuming musical scores.

The latest of Prager’s pieces focuses on the isolation of modern society. Part Two: Run is in direct response to the current period of cultural ambivalence and uncertainty in the United States. It is a feeling of confusion and indecision that occurs when faced with a complex situation. Manifested as a fear of failure, fear of the unknown, and a lack of confidence in one’s ability to handle a situation. Through this exhibition, the viewer is encouraged to examine human perseverance as well as the opportunities that exist both within the art world and in everyday life for empathy, participation, and action. In this day and age, almost everything can be delivered directly to one’s doorstep and a person could in some way “survive” without ever leaving the comfort of their own home. Bravely choosing to leave security, venture out into the world, and participate as contributing members of society demonstrates willful action. It illustrates life as it truly is, a game. Regardless of whether we choose to read the terms or conditions, we have decided to engage in the game. 

Part Two: Run is an exhibition of new photographs, film, and sculptures. In this new body of work, Prager engages theatrical strategies and cinematic conventions, exploring cultural anxiety. Through the use of theatrical devices and cinematic motifs, Prager explores a sense of cultural anxiety. Transporting the viewer to an all-American town that erupts in chaos when the residents are confronted by a giant metal sphere on a rampage. As figures collide into their own reflections, Prager suggests a curative, collective reckoning with those forces outside our control. Through absurdist humour the film examines human resilience in the face of catastrophe. When society’s great anxieties are presented as a laughably large pinball, it is easier to digest and confront those fears. 

Featuring a group of people from above, Sleep is an expertly staged, vivid photograph. Lifeless bodies lay in the middle of the street, but it appears to be in a peaceful slumber. As part of Prager’s practice, the figures assume familiar postures and poses in order to embody characters, to engage, reflect, and, ultimately, create a sense of empathy. Viewers, too, become active participants in the work. Implored to search for characters that embody a recognizable feeling. In this way, Part Two: Run encourages viewers to contemplate their own vulnerability and mortality. 

Prager’s work as a whole is a reminder that it’s alright to live in a fantasy – or rather let dreams of a colorful and bright world influence your perception of it. If it makes it easier to examine one’s own existence and confront misadventures, what’s the harm in adding a touch of melodrama to life? Rather than wallow in fear and loathing, cast it out. Life is more enjoyable when you bask in the beauty of the unpredictable.

Credit: Alex Prager