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Photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager makes art that is shallow by design. The young Los Angeles artist likes to produce images of detached-looking women in wigs wandering through artificial environments. Her large-scale photos pair kitsch and desolation, inviting us to absorb countless quirky details, but she seldom allows the viewer to connect or identify with her subjects. Instead, the artist’s intentions tend to vanish in a spectacular fog of costumes, stereotypes, and classic Hollywood atmosphere.
Scanning the faces of the weirdly made-up people milling around airports and train stations in the Corcoran’s current show, “Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd,” one does not get a sense of pathos, personality, or even a definite historical moment or place. Instead, one feels lost in a glossy, meticulously stage-managed neverwhere—one in which the main characters have fled, leaving a cast of extras.
This shallowness shouldn’t necessarily be a problem for Prager. Some of the most important artworks from the past half-century have been all about surface and simulacra. Andy Warhol once said that he “wanted to be plastic.” In the 1960s, he silk-screened found images of Coca-Cola bottles, celebrities, and grisly car crashes simply because they were common and popular. In 1977, Cindy Sherman began creating her famous series of “Untitled Film Stills,” self-portraits in which the artist rendered herself unrecognizable with props and costumes, mimicking typical media representations of women. And in the ’80s and ’90s, Jeff Wall created what amount to single-frame movies—lavishly constructed photos in which vampires feast on the living, dead Russian soldiers in Afghanistan return to life, and 19th century artworks are restaged in contemporary settings.
Those works are wonderful because they posited new relationships between fine art, people, and popular culture. Prager’s images, meanwhile, seem less like a commentary on spectacle or cinema than a simple exercise in nostalgia. When Warhol and Sherman made their signature works, the conventions and cultural references they deployed were aging, but still more or less current. Prager is a bit more distant from the Hollywood she samples—the over-the-top melodrama of Douglas Sirk, the fastidious pictorial construction and voyeurism of Alfred Hitchcock. Her preferred period is really only accessible to her via Turner Classic Movies or the work of older generations of artists mining the same stuff.
You can try—as Corcoran curator Kaitlin Booher has—to attach to Prager’s work thoughts on the surveillance state, or the loneliness or peril of crowded public spaces, or constructing identity in relation to Hollywood. Certainly for the eight roughly 5-by-7-foot “Crowd” tableaux in the exhibition, all dated 2013, Prager’s preferred vantage point—an impossible bird’s eye view—implies that big brother is watching via closed circuit or satellite. But Prager’s photos and videos generally seem to shrug off explanations rooted in life as it’s lived in the present tense.
Prager’s enduring fascination with street photography might shed more light on what she’s doing. The self-taught artist has often cited her first contact with William Eggleston’s work as essentially spurring her entire career. Eggleston, of course, created colorful dye-transfer print portraits of curious bohemian characters roaming around Memphis, Tenn., in the mid-1970s. He was fond of eccentric compositions, ersatz hairdos and wardrobes, and David Lynch–esque scenarios, and many of the same elements crop up in Prager’s work. One Prager photo in an adjoining gallery of earlier works—“Desiree” (2008)—is clearly an homage to an untitled Eggleston shot from 1975; in both images, a redhead dreamily reclines on the ground. Eggleston’s model clutches a Kodak Brownie camera; Prager’s holds a pack of cigarettes.
Street photography like Eggleston’s relied on reacting intuitively to unpredictable scenarios in public spaces. Prager’s images are packed with private exchanges between people: gestures, glances, or curious visual and compositional rhymes. One would associate these with the spontaneity of street photography—except in Prager’s work, these elements occur by the dozens, and they’re all scripted. Prager uses technology to stack figures and images, creating what amounts to faux street photography on steroids. Her 2013 piece “Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach)” consists of at least half a dozen exchanges between friends, relatives, and couples, each of which would suffice to carry a single photo. Instead, the composition is packed top to bottom, edge to edge, with overlapping implied narratives.
Prager’s images actually allude to real places—Washington Square Park in New York; an airport in Burbank, Calif. But instead of shooting these sites, she recreates them on soundstages and populates them with professional Hollywood extras. Oddly, these extras resemble types from older movies not just because of their wardrobes, but also because of their strange physical characteristics.
These come to the fore in the approximately 11-minute three-channel video, “Face in the Crowd.” Between shots of the extras milling about in movie theaters, airports, and parks, they are interviewed one-on-one in front of a black backdrop. Slightly damaged yet distinctive-looking men and women with yellowed teeth, speech impediments, or unibrows say mildly embarrassing things about drinking at home, divorce, or recurring nightmares.
Prager’s extras and their hard-luck stories are somewhat reminiscent of artists Drew and Josh Alan Friedman’s alt-comic book, Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead. The Friedmans depict the stories, real and imagined, of B-movie stars and movie-studio bit players coping with life after the limelight has faded. Men with distinctive yet unhandsome looks struggle with Hollywood experiences that did not end in real fame or happiness. Readers struggle with protagonists who are sympathetic, authentically human, and grotesque simultaneously.
Prager has captured that strain of sad Hollywood background chatter quite nicely. Whether her work can be more than a tricked-out visual sampler platter of classic film and photography against a backdrop of West Coast melancholy, though, remains to be seen. Luckily for Prager, she has some time to figure that out: The “Earlier Works” section of the show only dates back to 2008. If the next five years are as eventful for Prager as the previous five, she may yet find hidden depths in the shallow end of the art pool.