Alex Prager, Part Two: Run @Lehmann Maupin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the basement gallery space and on the second floor. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2022. Physical sizes range from roughly 21×36 to 59×78 inches, and all of the prints are available in editions of 6.

The show also includes a color film, titled Run, made in 2022, duration 7 minutes 54 seconds. This film is on view in a darkened room on the lower level, and packaged in a linen box set with USB drive, blu-ray DVD, poster, 6 film stills (each 11×21 inches), white gloves, and studio letter, in an edition of 6. Other sculptural works on view include a custom pinball machine (made of polished sheet metal and glass) from 2022, sized 71x53x26 inches, unique, and a silver ball atop a prone figure (mixed media and steel), from 2022, 63 inches in diameter plus 17x30x30 inches, unique.

Part Two: Run was preceded by Part One: The Mountain, a gallery show of works at Lehmann Maupin London in January 2022 (here). Additional photographs from Part Two: Run were also on view at Lehmann Maupin Palm Beach in November 2022 (here).

(Installation shots and film stills below.)

Comments/Context: It should have been obvious more than a decade ago now when Alex Prager first arrived on the contemporary photography scene that she would eventually evolve to become a movie director. From the very beginning, she’s had a flair for retro cinematic styling and noirish implied drama that few could match, and over the years, she has honed that eye for detail in a series of photographic projects that have incrementally led her to short films, where her talents have had more room to run. In the intervening years, she’s progressed from photographs that were made to look like film stills to photographs that actually are film stills, and along the way, her storytelling has expanded from allusively open-ended single frames to a handful of short films with Hollywood-style actors and production qualities.

The centerpiece of this gallery show is Prager’s short film Run. The action takes place in a generic small town, with sidewalks, storefronts, and various pedestrians going about their everyday lives (spoilers ahead). This pleasant routine is upended by a group of people in suits who push a large silver ball up the sidewalk, stopping until the point that a woman farther up the street inserts a coin into a newspaper vending machine – at this moment, the ball is released and begins rolling down the sidewalk. In the meantime, the heroine of the story, a woman dressed in pink, has parked her car, gotten out to mail a letter, and then been interrupted by a friend who stops to chat. Soon the ball picks up speed and starts to roll over everything in its path like a bulldozer, smashing people who get in its way and tossing a few into the air. The woman in pink realizes what is happening, takes off her heels and starts to run, with the ball close behind her. More mayhem and stampeding ensues, and when she gets to the next intersection, she jumps out of the way and the ball ping pongs back and forth between various cars and a fire hydrant, wreaking more havoc before heading down the next block. The woman then walks along behind the path of destruction, ultimately reaching another open intersection which is filled with felled bodies. In shock, she wanders out among the bodies and leans down to touch a seemingly dead man, who then wakes up, as do all the others, which is where the short story ends.

Coming just after the pandemic years, when a mysterious force came into our lives and upended nearly everything in its path, Run certainly has thematic resonances that feel familiar. Prager grafts a pinball machine metaphor on top of her quaint small town, with the ball readied, launched by the coin drop, shot down the narrow sidewalk, and then bounced around bumpers before heading down another pathway and disappearing. The mirrored ball reflects everything around it as it passes, including the people who get squashed, offering them their own reflections just before they get rolled over. And while the setup deliberately treads into the absurd, its implied commentary about the loss of control in our lives is pretty clear, offering a succinct fable-style narrative.

In terms of costuming and styling, Prager is once again in her comfort zone, with each and every pedestrian and bystander in Run outfitted as a saturated color archetype. Men in dated suits, women in throwback dresses, cowboys, shopkeepers, and countless other roles wander in and out of the frame, their hair and makeup chosen with precise attention to evoking a nostalgic American stereotype. These characters inhabit the main story, but also become possible narratives of their own, and when they are gathered together in groups and crowds, as Prager has done many times in the past, they seem to defy being individually overlooked, each and every face capturing attention instead of fading into the background.

The larger gallery show then builds off of the content in Run, with two sculptural works taking up most of the space in the downstairs gallery. One features the large mirrored ball settled atop a woman in a dress, with an echo of the house that falls on top of the witch in The Wizard of Oz. Initially, the setup evokes a Duane Hanson almost real reaction, which is then followed by noticing your own unavoidable reflection in the ball, which breaks the fourth wall and brings the viewer into the scene as a participant. The other work makes the pinball motif in the film more literal, with an actual pinball machine placed in the gallery, complete with mirrored surfaces and the final image from the story embedded in the play area. (A custom-made Run token affixed to the shiny mirrored announcement card available at the front desk may have actually played the machine, but I didn’t try it.)

Only two of the photographs on view are actually stills from Run, both coming from near the end of the film. The towering figure of Cecily (the woman in the pink dress) dominates one image, the vantage point looking up from below making her appear like a benevolent (and slightly confused and weary) giant. “Sleep” documents the aftermath of the destruction, with Prager’s styled characters spread across the final intersection; it’s the kind of densely packed, edge-to-edge image we’ve seen from her before, echoing other crowd scenes that highlight her mastery of a seemingly infinite variety of recognizable personas.

The other photographs in the show aren’t directly drawn from the film, but instead connect back to a larger series of images first shown late last year. “Mime” is another group shot, seen from a slightly elevated perspective, which includes the aforementioned mime, as well as a woman with a camera (looking back at us), a woman playing an accordion, a man playing a saxophone, and various others drinking coffee, dancing, and playing chess; once again, Prager breaks a crowd down to its component parts, giving each individual personality and attention. The additional pictures reach back to Prager’s ability to evoke a sense of dream-like dread, with looming figures (one holding an Icee) with a dark bird in the sky overhead, a cowgirl swinging her rope on the edge of a cliff, and a woman falling through the sky, suspended between up and down. These isolated scenes are somewhat less engaging, if only because they don’t more overtly link back to the primary thread being presented here.

As a parable of the COVID moment, Run offers a lively sense of playfully inexplicable doom, a horror story cleaned up so that its bite is more muted. And while Prager continues to make memorable photographs in discrete bunches, she’s largely covering compositional and stylistic ground she’s been over before previously; perhaps it is now time for her to make the jump to a feature length production (or to join a film as its head of costuming and set design), where her ability to craft whole environments can be challenged to flourish and expand. She’s ready to expand from a single episode to many strung together, thereby giving her meticulously presented one-dimensional characters a chance at more depth and roundness.

Collector’s POV: The photographs on view in this show are priced between $45000 and $70000 each, based on size. Prager’s work has become consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $75000.

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