Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alex Prager, Compulsion @Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 color photographs, framed in white with no mat, and hung in the main gallery space, the project room, and throughout the office area. A short film, La Petite Mort, is being screened in a small side room. The chromogenic prints from Compulsion come in 9 paired diptychs (in editions of 6) consisting of one large image and one smaller image of an eye. The large images range in size from 48x20 to 59x72; the eyes are each 20x23. There is also one grid of six eyes which is 43x72 (in an edition of 3). The 6 film stills from La Petite Mort in the project room are each 13x25, in editions of 6. A signed catalog of the exhibit is available from the gallery for $35. Companion exhibits of the same body of work are also on view at M+B in Los Angeles (here) and Michael Hoppen in London (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: As Alex Prager's star rises in the world of contemporary photography, I'll admit to being a bit of a reluctant but emerging convert. It's undeniable that the hype around her work has reached a fever pitch. And when I asked for the show checklist, I got a reply I haven't heard in years: the show is basically sold out. What? I said. I visited the show after it had been open for roughly a week. Everything already gone, except for a few stragglers in the back room? That's certainly evidence of strong interest in her work. Good for her.

But so what's going on here? When I first wrote about Prager's work two years ago, I felt a very distinct Cindy Sherman echo. Nearly all of those images were portraits, many quite close up, and her retro styling and melodramatic scene setting felt like the Untitled Film Stills, with a more hysterical LA noir vibe. Cinematic references to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch were thrown around like candy. That show was followed up by Prager's inclusion in MoMA's New Photography show in 2010 where she showed a mix of older work and her newest short film; this gave her an institutional stamp of approval and kicked off a few high profile commissions.

Fast forward a couple of years and Prager is back with a new body of work and another short film. At this point, the look and feel of her work has become a signature style. From saturated colors and women in trouble, to throwback dresses and big wigs, a Prager photograph is now easily identified from across a room. Her recent images step back quite a bit from the earlier intimate portraits and settle on wider scenes and atmospheric situations. Each narrative turns on a disaster: a house fire, a flood, a roadside accident (with a scary looking coyote), a sinkhole in the middle of 110, a capsized ferry with floundering passengers. Paired with each dreamlike setup is a single large eye, often doused with mascara (reminiscent of one-eyed Bill Brandts from decades earlier, but more dramatic). We're overly eager spectators at these tragedies, and being sternly watched at the same time. While the visual device is a bit heavy handed, it reinforces the feeling of Weegee-esque back-and-forth voyeurism.

The Sherman connection now seems overly simplistic. Prager has evolved her art toward the Vancouver crowd (Wall, Douglas, Graham) and their unique brand of staged reality. But she has done so on her own terms, with a distinct styling and bright Southern California light that is wholly her own. I struggle a bit with her craftsmanship, in that many of the images seem distractingly blurred or over enlarged, while others don't hide the crisp PhotoShop manipulations with enough deftness. But then again, maybe the kind of perfection I am expecting isn't necessary here. Perhaps that subtle roughness and obviousness is part of the loose allure of her brand of story telling.

All that said, many of the scenes on view here are striking and memorable. A woman hangs like a rag doll from the span of an electric tower, another is blown through the air (losing her purse in the process), a third is dangling from the bumper of a car, while a fourth is ensnared in a tangle of telephone wires. This is well constructed, puzzling tragedy, and the images have the feel of watching from an assembled crowd of gawkers. She's successfully built the suspense and drawn me in. The short film, La Petite Mort, running in the viewing room, expands this narrative form, as a woman is blown off a set of train tracks and into a nearby pond, only to emerge dry into the critical eyes of a group of bystanders, where she proceeds to faint/die. The dissonant dramatic music makes the whole thing seem simultaneously overdone and perfect tuned. It's a period piece, with a new layer of in-on-the-joke conceptual rework.

So is Prager's work a guilty pleasure or is it smartly mining visual/cultural stereotypes to create new kinds of contemporary story telling? I suppose it's both at some level, but I think she deserves credit for defining her own playing field and then consistently continuing to expand it. My conclusion is that it's overly easy to linger in the retro fabulousness of her world, and thereby overlook the fact that Prager's work is getting better and more complex with each successive project.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The Compulsion diptychs are $18000 (as a pair). Smaller individual images of the large scenes and of the eyes from Compulsion are available for $8000 and $6000 respectively (in editions of 9). The La Petite Mort prints are $6500 each. As I mentioned above, these prices are perhaps theoretical at this point if the show is well sold, so check with the gallery directly about what is still available. Prager's work has also started to show up the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices ranging from roughly $3000 to $17000.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Reviews/Features: New York (here), Vogue (here)
Alex Prager, Compulsion
Through May 12th

Yancey Richardson Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011


Anonymous said...

Her print quality is always lacking. People shouldn't be so quick to excuse that.

Anonymous said...

Incredible how fast it sold, isn't it?

I previously bought a few Prager photos. I called to ask if I should fly to LA to see the photos and they told me that it would probably sell out before then. So, for this collection, I had to call to make sure I would get the preview. I got it by email on April 3rd. I had to email back my ranked selections by the 5th, and they confirmed by end of day which I would get. I think most of the collection sold before the shows even opened. I am new to collecting, so this was a new experience for me - - calling both LA and NY to campaign for the photos I wanted. Her work already has a very specific visual stamp. This certainly makes it more appealing from a collector's POV. I'm also completely incapable of explaining why I had this reaction to them.

I will say, they are great to live with. I have Four Girls above my bed, Beth in the hallway, Rita and Alexandra in the office. Some reviewers talk about tension in the photos, or remark on the "women in danger" theme. I don't see that at all. Maybe it's because the girls are all in drag, really. They are all playing dress up, and they are dressing up as old archetypes that really don't play out too much for the under-35 set. I think there is a lot of wit in these photos. Underneath the wigs and the mock-fear in their eyes, it all feels like the joke is on someone else. With Four Girls in particular, I just see tough girls; girls conspiring. In her photos, men are mostly absent. When they are in her photos, they aren't contributing anything. I think this says a lot about the lives of women, like me, 35-and under. My crowd is straight and coupled up, but overwhelmingly we're out-earning our men; we're doing the negotiating and the planning and the set decoration of our whole lives. Sea change. There is no nostalgia in Prager's photos, despite what the costumes and the Hitchcock references might be trying to tell us. And there is no danger in them, no real peril. These photos are so LA - it's just veneer. Which isn't to say Prager's ambition is small or poorly executed. I just think Prager - - all tiny voice and big ambition - - has something to say, and I think it's something like this: Don't worry, world. The damsels are not in distress.

Anon - I am interested to hear more about the print quality. (Genuinely interested.) What is deficient about it? I could use some education here.

Casey Freidman said...

''I struggle a bit with her craftsmanship, in that many of the images seem distractingly blurred or over enlarged, while others don't hide the crisp PhotoShop manipulations with enough deftness. But then again, maybe the kind of perfection I am expecting isn't necessary here. Perhaps that subtle roughness and obviousness is part of the loose allure of her brand of story telling.''

That's a huge problem with her work! She's not a dilettante, but she lacks the skill needed to keep her from being the flavor of the moment.

Although Prager is clever and these diptychs are lovely; she's no master. With the exception of the 'W' magazine crowd, who have major ADD, these 'sold out' works will find there way to Phillips de Pury or Sotheby's in a year or two and won't break their low estimate.