Alex Prager: Play the Wind @Lehmann Maupin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a series of 4 connected gallery spaces. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2019. Physical sizes range from roughly 36×48 to 59×77 inches (or reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 6.

The show also includes a film (Play the Wind, 8 minutes, 2019) shown in a separate darkened room. As an art object, it includes a linen box, USB drive, blu-ray DVD, poster and film stills, white gloves, and studio letter. A sculpture from the film, made of foam, plastic, fabric, and aluminum on base, is also on view.

(Film stills and installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Over the past decade, Alex Prager has progressively become more and more of a film director. When she first appeared on the artistic scene, her dramatic photographs of young women were largely just faces, their situations and backstories of trauma, anxiety, or peril only alluded to indirectly. She quickly moved onto wider views of these female characters, where the scenes of film noir distress were more staged (women thrown from burning cars, hanging from telephone wires, and tossed in the water), and her first forays into film expanded these set pieces into short linked narratives.

From there, her interest in types and characters expanded, evolving into an exploration of crowds, where dozens of people were individually styled and then gathered into densely claustrophobic scenes at railway stations, beaches, theaters, sports stadiums, and street corners. In recent years, her films (and the accompanying still photographs) have become even more elaborate in scope and scale, the narratives becoming more complex and layered, and her many stylized characters becoming masses of extras supporting the larger flow of her stories. Seen as a continuum, the iterative march in her work is clear.

Prager’s newest project continues this incremental embrace of cinematic thinking. At the center of the show is Play the Wind, a new eight-minute film that is Prager’s most ambitious film-making project yet. The plot of the short film is mysterious and surreal – an unnamed man drives through the streets of Los Angeles, in search of someone, but distracted by his radio, a parking lot fair, a crash on the freeway, and a Welcome Home parade on a closed street. Eventually, he sees a woman in a red dress on a street corner (perhaps the woman he has been seeking), and suddenly she is whooshed away into the sky, and we watch as she falls through the clouds, losing her red dress, smashing through boxes of clothing and piles of trash floating in the air, and ultimately landing wearing a green pant suit. She touches down in a strangely verdant jungle with dense greenery and a wild boar, only to find herself inside a movie; she then steps out from the screen, taking shape as a living being again, and proceeds to walk out of the theater into the street, where she finds the man’s parked car. She drives away in this car (he is nowhere to be seen) and the story ends.

While Prager has often explored memory and nostalgia in her work, Play the Wind creates a hybrid reality, where the actual streets of LA are used as a backdrop for her obvious artifice. The set pieces in the first part of the film (the fair, the crash, the closed street) allow Prager to unfurl dozens of her quirky characters who momentarily pass through the periphery of the action, but the film itself is more cinematic than ever, with moving scenes shot from inside the car, layered shots that mesh foreground and background, a movie-within-a-movie structure, and tracking shots that follow the action of the various characters.

At first glance, Prager’s supporting photographs might be assumed to be stills from the film, but they’re not; they recreate scenes that take place in the film and add others that we never saw, upending the idea of one linear narrative. Maybe these are parts of the story we’ve forgotten, or missed when the moment passed, or took place off camera but were nonetheless important – the photographs expand the potential range of the stories, creating uncertainty and multiplicity. A silhouetted cowboy in a phonebooth (maybe the same cowboy we passed earlier on the bridge?), a woman in orange lying on a floral bedspread, a car crashed over a rocky cliff, and the woman in green seen from below with a plane above her in the blue sky are all scenes that fall outside the movie’s storyline – perhaps they give us clues or important details, or follow threads we never understood.

Several of the stills freeze the action at the dense set pieces, allowing us to better see all of Prager’s creativity as applied to fleeting characters. In the crowd at the Welcome Home event, she gives us a woman in a wheelbarrow toting a bottle of Jack Daniels, a man with arrows in his chest, a yellow dress woman (who eventually runs in front of the car in the film), a man showing off two centerfolds, a man with a lifesized blow up doll, and a flying black cat that hovers over the chaos. And on the corner near the food mart and the check cashing window, a cowboy kisses his girl on the roof, a woman carries a red suitcase, and those milling around include a nun, a clown, and a woman in an I Heart LA t-shirt. A close viewing of the film reveals literally dozens more of these characters, often dressed in bright primary colors and wearing dated fashions, including two women in matching animal print tracksuits.

Prager’s work is visually seductive and brimming with nested allusions, tensions, and possibilities, but in a sense, it never seems to arrive. The brightly lit artificiality of her approach is always visible, so we can never really suspend our disbelief and willingly enter her stories. Instead, she leaves us outside looking in, knowing that what we’re being shown is a deliberately elaborate fabrication or a carefully constructed homage. That conceptual distance makes Prager’s work destabilizing – her push and pull of celebration and caricature is never allowed to resolve.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced between $30000 and $75000, based on size. Prager’s work has also become consistently available secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $75000.

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