Photography and film art — that awkward term for shorts made by artistes like Steve McQueen and Larry Clark before they desert the gallery world for the movie biz — have a new It Girl: L.A. shutterbug Alex Prager.
A breakout figure who has two New York shows up currently at Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea and LES spaces, a solo museum presentation at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery, and a third L.A. gallery opening happening later this week, the 34-year-old Prager has dutifully spliced together visual art and the movies just in time for Oscar season. Besides well-deserved kudos for timeliness, she should also be commended for expertly tickling the culture’s E! spot.
Guilty pleasures never looked so good, or, at times, felt so trifling. Prager’s new still and moving images — they are shared among the venues participating in her four-gallery rollout thanks to multiple editions — arrive in the form of large-scale Technicolor photos of staged crowd scenes, plus an immersive three-channel film installation that takes the viewer for a spin through several faux locations. At times, the trip is as remarkable as a dozy Levitra commercial. At others, the camera’s sweep dazzles, demonstrating what the world looks like, art history included, when viewed entirely through Tinseltown’s rose-colored viewfinder.
No stranger to big projects, Prager has previously managed movie sets and was commissioned to make several short films in 2011 by the New York Times starring rainmakers Kirsten Dunst, Jessica Chastain, and George Clooney. Titled “Face in the Crowd,” Prager’s most recent efforts were achieved not with Weegee’s 4×5 Speed Graphic or William Eggleston’s Leica M6, but mainly through hard-earned Hollywood connections. Here’s what Prager’s gumption and networking got her: state-of-the-art movie cameras, a mechanical lift, a soundstage, the actress Elizabeth Banks, 350 extras, heaps of makeup and costuming, and, as the artist put it, “loads of postproduction.” Crowd-pleasing, candy-hued, and escapist, Prager’s creative haul from this bonanza proves to be, in brief, long on good looks but short on insights.
Of the two Lehmann Maupin exhibitions, the one at the 26th Street location is by far the most compelling. Consisting of Prager’s 12-minute film and seven still images (the remaining nine are on view at Chrystie Street), the show offers an almost matchless version of Prager’s eye-popping aesthetic. The photographs, for one, nearly burst out of their frames with counterfeit detail. Inspired in part by late-modernist street photography (when the camera once played a directly revelatory function) and postmodernist pastiche (when artists like Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson stage-managed micro-revelations), Prager’s bird’s-eye views of a packed movie theater and Washington Square passersby nails the complexity of a less stirring genre: Where’s Waldo cartoons. Cast, styled, and costumed past the point of basic believability, every single one of her subjects (they are mostly “professional extras”) embrace cliché like “characters” in generic, Family Guy–type entertainments.
Prager, you see, is no ironist in the Warhol mold. Instead, her substantial eye and skill set turn bumbling when she insists her shallow surfaces hold earnest content. Take her movie, which she claims is the result of “a fear of crowds” and of wanting to answer the question of what happens “before” and “after” her static pictures. A film in which movie star Banks’s ready heroine admires the crowd, joins the crowd, then loses the crowd when it turns madding, the three-side projection soars technically, but falls flat when it comes to evoking actual meaning (the brief real-life confessionals at the beginning might work if the extras were allowed to finish their thoughts). Madame Bovary it ain’t. Considering Prager’s obvious gifts, seeing her struggle with a sympathetic storyline is like watching Helen Fielding type out Beckett with boxing gloves.
But what if Prager’s problem is fundamentally emblematic, more widespread? To this, the artist might agree: “It’s not really photography,” Prager told an interviewer in a web-based Vimeo portrait. “In fact, I feel like people should come up with another word for what the younger generation is doing, because it’s not the same at all.” For “photography,” substitute film art (or digital imagineering), and for “generation,” many artists under 40. This is visual art as seen through the movies, the web, and gaming culture. Judgment lingers: Should we really expect something else?