Painted faces: Vanessa Prager’s portraits bring online impressions into reality
When the self-taught, LA-based artist Vanessa Prager began exhibiting her scenic narrative paintings in 2008, they captured an aesthetic that fell somewhere between Mark Ryden’s ethereal dreamscapes and the hard realism of Weimar Berlin’s New Objectivity painting. While they garnered some acclaim for Prager, who is the younger sister of photographer Alex Prager, they weren’t working for her at a core level.
‘I got tired of trying to make everything perfect and the work didn’t leave enough room for the story I wanted to show through,’ says Prager, who was growing frustrated in a romantic relationship a few years ago when she began painting over all of the old works in her downtown studio. ‘There was a sense back then that if the paintings weren’t perfect, they were throwaways, and I didn’t like that. I started I started piling on more and more layers on my paintings and it just felt nice.’
What emerged was a body of heavily-impastoed portraits, whose rivulets of oil teased out new perspectives, entry points, and abstractions into what were previously flat, fairly anodyne images. The decision to go thick has been paying off. In addition to solo shows in San Francisco (at Jenkins Johnson Gallery) and Los Angeles (Richard Heller Gallery), Prager’s thick stylings are now on display at The Hole, in New York, where she just opened her latest solo effort, Voyeur.
‘It’s like when you browse the internet and have all this in-flow of information through Amazon and Google searches or Tinder profiles and you form a whole persona based on tiny bits of information,’ says Prager. ‘I think it’s human nature to have one bit of information and fill in everything you don’t know, just automatically.’
At the Hole, that plays out in a series of portraits — from 8x8-foot diptychs to 8x8-inch boards, which begin as palettes and end up as monstrous characters such as Pablo’s Bones — that offer a window onto the composite catalogue of (real, imagined, and digitized) faces that have come under Prager’s purview over the last year. By abstracting her characters more than she ever has, Prager is stripping away the possibility of lazy voyeuristic reads.
‘When you see these on Instagram, you see the faces clearly, especially the eight-footers, but when you see them in real life, you do not see these faces so the point is that there’s a million little pieces making up the whole,’ she says. ‘It’s not supposed to be super clear, they’re blending into the background but they are the background.’
Think of them as painterly versions of the wallpaper scene in When a Stranger Calls — only far less creepy.