Alex Prager’s new work, ‘Compulsion’, showing simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles and at Hoppen Contemporary in London, consists of a series of diptychs, on the ground floor, and stills or frames from a new short film entitled ‘La Petite Mort’ on the top floor. As with the artist’s previous work, all the image are enthused with the nostalgic, gendered and Hitchcockian vision for which she has become established.
The diptychs consist of large prints of staged ‘scenes’ or tableaux, juxtaposed asymmetrically with smaller close-ups of heavily made-up single eyes. The scenes, all stunning in their production value and rich colour schemes, mine the classic narratives of the darkness hidden behind the glamour of Los Angeles. Explored in the films and books of David Lynch, James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, to name just a few, this is clearly a mythology that remains intoxicating, if not exactly novel. The digitally manipulated scenes include an isolated house consumed in dark water, abandoned to its own destruction; a car sinking into a puddle on the free-way, receding into hot concrete, as well as different depictions of immaculately attired women in peril, be it dangling from a car suspended over an invisible precipice or catapulted into the air by an un-knowable force.
The darkness, Prager, seems to suggest, lies in the incongruity of the Californian landscape, mixing the sordid ambitions of its inhabitants with an indifferent environment, cloaked in a hot, pale light. In its inherent oppositions, the landscape can collapse, liquify and drown. In another scene, a the door to a period car is found open besides a disproportionately large rock in the middle of the road. The image recalls that of a crime scene, indeed the images are titled that way (‘1:18pm Silverlake Drive, 2012’, for example), yet here the ‘perp’ is the foundational material on and with which the city has been built.
Juxtaposing these images with ‘eyes’ calls to attention notions of the gaze (although this seems less relevant here then in Prager’s earlier work). The ‘Compulsion’ to look is present, particularly in the images featuring women as slightly bemused victims, yet the gaze isn’t so much turned around as indulged, encouraged even. Indeed the humorous nature of some of the work suggests a complicity between photographer and viewer, an invitation to participate in these elaborate re-stagings that so clearly reference the exploitation films and TV of the 50’s and 60’s. The viewer plays the part of the spectator rather than become one, and in accepting this role is made aware of the meanings he/she can bring. This is a clever trick but it makes of the series a curiously toothless examination of the aesthetic it apes, possible to enjoy as pure pastiche but without the venom of Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ for example. Having said that, this artist is in complete control of her imagined world and explores it with mastery.
Alex Prager is in the unique position of having developed a vision that straddles the commercial and art worlds equally. Hung in the gallery, her photographs are in the tradition of Gregory Crewdson or Hannah Starkey and engage with ‘arty’ discourses such as the gaze, or concept of ‘truth’ in the photographic image. Yet some of these images would be equally at home as spreads in a magazine, or on a billboard towering over the landscape she depicts. ‘La Petite Mort’, narrated by Gary Oldman and lensed by Matthew Libatique (who also shot Black Swan) illustrates this well. It is a beautiful visual ditty that seeks to equate death with pleasure and hints at feminist empowerment, without, again, taking itself at all seriously.
In David Lynch’s Inland Empire, L.A’s horrific netherworld is found behind the false wall of a film set. Threat and evil are lurk there and the actors caught up in it are desperate to escape. Prager seems to know the wall exists, hints at what lies behind it, but is happier enjoying its surface.
Words/Photo Kerim Aytac @ArtLyst 2012
MICHAEL HOPPEN CONTEMPORARY 20.04.12 – 26.05.12