Alex Prager on Solo Exhibition at Seoul’s Lotte Museum of Art


American artist, photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager brings her exaggerated and ingenious seduction to Seoul’s Lotte Musem of Art.

Los Angeles-born and -raised American artist, photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager has much on her mind as she arrives to our late-January meeting at Lehmann Maupin gallery, Cromwell Place, London, on the eve of her latest exhibition opening. She’s hosting a “champagne walkthrough” of the work with a posse of private VIPs in 40 minutes, and must “change my skirt, shirt and pants” before chaperoning them. She joyfully orders a glass of claret to focus mind and eye, while simultaneously assessing another show she’s been prepping; her retrospective called Alex Prager: Big West at the Lotte Museum of Art, in Seoul, South Korea, which is open until early June.

Alex Prager
Alex Prager (Photo: Jeff Vespa)

“I’m so excited by the Seoul show,” she says, beaming as though this is the beginning of the world (which in a sense it is, given the last two years of intermittent lockdown and her upcoming inaugural trip to South Korea). “I’m calling it Big West because for me it’s about Americana.” We toast ‘Big West’. “It’s literally big pictures of the West, and movie
titles and TV shows. I like to use simple, primary titles in my work, almost like children’s titles. I like them to be easy to understand,” she explains. “It felt fitting for what will also be a very large expanse of my work [more than 100 pieces], and those who are interested in the American myth, which is getting more and more mythical. I think what we need right now is more storytelling.”

Alex Prager orchestrates beautiful and beguiling art of the sort that makes you stop, wow, awe, marvel, OMG, obsess, fangirl, and frantically IG, as your eyes pop out on stalks and your universe – both digital and IRL 2.0 – tilts italic in likes and loves. It’s art, yes, but more like film art, fashion art, vogue, glamour, klieg lights, lifestyle art, music video, literary art, cosmetics, horror, spoof, thriller, surreal, sinister and dazzlingly vibe-brant. Her work can seem as visually mainstream or Hollywood epic as Gone With The Wind, The Red Shoes and North by Northwest, yet narratively as avant-garde, alternative and fact or fictional as Paul Auster’s Music of Chance, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, or Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories, the latter being a classic Penguin publication that coincidentally bears Prager’s work Renee (2009) for a cover.

Alex Prager, Face in the Crowd Film Strip #2, 2013
Alex Prager, Face in the Crowd Film Strip #2, 2013

“Alex Prager’s works are simultaneously explicit and implicit,” says Poppy Dongxue Wu, chief curator at Beijing’s X-Museum. “She blends Hitchcockian suspense into melodramatic settings, and ingeniously agitates our minds into a mix of exaggerated emotions and reality.” It’s that mix which so defines the work; Prager’s always “on” for being precisely “just off”.

She’s come to be defined by her immersive, splashy, richly saturated, large-scale photographs of elaborately staged crowds (she casts family and friends and auditions extras from Hollywood agencies) – on beaches, in bodies of water, television studios and train stations (see Face in the Crowd, 2013, and Play the Wind, 2019). She sets up the artificial yet allows something real to happen within it. Seemingly frozen in time, or timeless, her protagonists and their plush West Coast colour palettes are suffused with oozy Technicolor hues enriched by the mysterious, inexplicable and often precarious happenstances Prager depicts; attacks by birds (à la Hitchcock), people falling from buildings, out of planes, drowning in water clothed in inappropriately billowing frocks; or in the case of her latest work in London and at the Lotte, her protagonists are suspended mid-air, either falling or ascending, in conflicting states of agony and ecstasy.

Afternoon, from Alex Prager's London show at Lehmann Maupin
Afternoon, from Alex Prager’s London show at Lehmann Maupin

“I call this work a contemporary cry,” she says. “What’s been going on in recent times is so drastically different from everything else.” She’s referring to the Covidious effects of the pandemic, of course. Rendered on a smaller and more intimate scale than much of her previous work, the new pieces comprise striking psychological portraits, which visualise private moments of inner turmoil that can still be universally understood.

“These are all works that are meant to be beautiful and pleasing, but at the core, they’re full of very difficult and challenging contemporary problems, which is why I call it a contemporary cry. It feels like there’s so much inner turmoil, emotion just bursting out. These are tricky times for people, alarming times, and people deal with it in different ways – and some are trying to numb everything.” Here’s she referring to the world at large and the mess the American myth has been dissolving into.

Prager became a mother several years ago and having an infant son has charged her work with newfound urgency. “My purpose was always to put pictures into the world and make people have a better understanding of themselves and lift their awareness of each other. Having my son has made that seem, how can I say, alarmingly important.” And then she reinforces the point about storytelling. “With the fucking state of the world right now, it’s so alarming; it’s like stories are going to make an inspiring world and I think it’s an artist’s responsibility to do that. And I really feel that way more for having him.”

Alex Prager, Susie and Friends, 2008
Alex Prager, Susie and Friends, 2008

Unlike many of her highbrow artistic peers, Prager never professionally schooled in the arts of photography or videography. “Maybe I’m more an artist for the people because I’ve never been like a critic’s darling,” she explains. “I never went to the venerable art institutions, I’m not in the club, I was never going to be in their system.”

Following a stint as a child actor in Hollywood (she liked food on film sets but little else) and odd jobs along the way, she was later profoundly moved by a William Eggleston exhibition at the Getty Museum, and one specific work, a pair of shoes under a bed, was the catalyst. “It’s just about being interested in everything. That’s what William Eggleston’s work is. He shot such mundane subjects and people, but there was such an emotional reaction. I didn’t understand that but wanted to know more. And I wanted others to feel that way. My work reflects my love of people, a deep love for people, with all their quirks, it’s all in the detail.”

Wax to receive and marble to retain, Eclipse (2021), a work showing both in London and at the Lotte, combines the seductively sinister that characterises – and energises – all of Prager’s best work. It feels Monroe-y, the faded aura of a 1950s Hollywood era, yet vivid like a Warhol silkscreen. Despite the charismatic trope of glamour, there’s underlying discomfort or conflict. We can almost discern the spectral echo of a former starlet’s words – “Hollywood will pay you two-thousand dollars for a kiss, yet sell your soul for 50 cents.” She could be Monroe, or Kelly (Grace), Novak (Kim) in a tale of Hollywood “Epochalypse”, or present-day Naomis (Watts and Harris) – or even, dare we say
it, Alex Prager herself. Unlike the luminous and trailblazing American artist Cindy Sherman, to whom Prager’s early work was compared by Chinese collectors like sculptor Qu Guangci, Prager doesn’t appear in her own artwork. And yet … is Eclipse her inaugural gallery selfie?

Alex Prager's exhibition in London
Alex Prager’s exhibition in London

“It’s my favourite in the series,” Prager says ambiguously. “The picture has a blue sky, very happy, positive and then the completely washed-out silhouette below is more negative or scary, with creepy connotations, like there’s a fear underlying the juxtaposition.”

Is it autobiographical? “I made that in response to the emotional rollercoaster I was going through for the last few years. It felt like a very powerful, unknown force that was in control of me, my life, my future, my family and my child. So I want to leave it very open. People can look and put whatever they feel onto the picture. For me, it was really about depicting a big unknowable force that’s eclipsing our control.”

Prager is summoned for her gallery walkthrough, so we finish our wine. But is it you, Alex Prager, we ask? “She remains a beautiful mystery,” Prager playfully retorts, and disappears, scattering stardust down the steps from whence she came. Prager’s work has been hailed – by admirers and detractors – as a triumph of artifice, an exquisitely choreographed fiction that refracts the experimental myth laboratory of Hollywood and Los Angeles; cinematic stills and projections seen through the prism of high-production art.

Alex Prager, Speed Limit, 2019
Alex Prager, Speed Limit, 2019

And yet, a decade on from Instagram, where artifice has become the prevailing digital visual reality, revisit her trophy canvases at the Lotte, and marvel at the “life” suffusing them; real people (yes, they might be extras but they’re still people playing somebodies), kinetic energy between the protagonists, a communal and shared interaction of patterns, grids, textiles, geometries, abstractions, ambitions and dreams.

Hierarchy and lowerarchy, there’s a whole lot more to Alex Prager than meets the eye, if you as a viewer allow it. Look anew. Think Big. Share the love.

(Hero image: Afternoon by Alex Prager. All photos courtesy of Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London)


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