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.
Through May 12th
Yancey Richardson Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011