Vanessa Prager, “Pablo’s Bones”, 2015
When L.A. artist Vanessa Prager paints, she paints hard. She doesn’t make paintings so much as she makes gloopy, blobby, swirling sculptural works out of paint, indulging in extreme messy excess. These are portraits that are more like landscapes – alive with movement, crystallized ephemerality, and oozing sensuality.
Prager’s paintings are nothing like they appear online, which is where you’re likely to first encounter them. On the Internet, they appear to be flat, two-dimensional abstract paintings. The pixelated screen transforms them like they do anything textural, making visuals into easily digestible pieces for quick scanning and screened visions. But in person, the artist’s paintings stand in stark opposition to this flatness. Ironic, considering Prager is very much influenced by the onslaught of pictures, texts, tweets, and gif-y visual stimuli of the Web.
“I just found myself scanning the Internet, mostly for imagery but for text as well,” says Prager. “I learned pretty early on that people would make bold statements — ‘never use black!’ — and other things like that. I realized that these statements were contradicting each other. So I felt like, anything goes, which was really valuable for me to learn as a painter because it gave me license to do whatever I want.”
Her current body of work, Voyeur, presently showing at The Hole in New York through February 29, 2016, exemplifies the transition Prager made a few years back from more realistic portraiture to her signature style of excessive abstraction. For her, the faces are always there, even if one can’t quite make out their presence.
“The faces are still there, they are just more hidden, and it’s very magic eye,” says Prager. “I really like abstract work, and I really like portraiture. I love doing portraiture, but I don’t care if other people see it. I love that there is a face, but it doesn’t have to be what people see when they look at it.”
Born and raised in Los Feliz, Prager works from a studio on the outskirts of L.A.’s Arts District. It’s packed with huge paintings, small experiments, glob-induced monsters of canvas. Despite the almost overpowering nature of her works, Prager herself is laid back, energetic, and genuinely interested in others.
Without any formal training, her skill set derives from a longtime engagement with visual expression, an unhampered interest in art-making that began as a teen, when she turned to drawing as her “loner activity.” Now, when she paints, she’s “in the zone” — there’s no thinking. Instead, she enters a purely meditative state, and that’s where the paint begins to take on a life of its own.
It’s difficult to contextualize Prager’s paintings. One could slot her into the history of California women painters like June Wayne, who recently had a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, or consider her work in relation to to Jackson Pollock or other Modern masters such as Lucian Freud and Chuck Close.
Voyeur potentially positions her conceptually closer to post-Internet artists such as Petra Cortright, who also mines the Internet for endlessly layered imagery. The exhibition shows 12-15 larger scale works, some of which are only viewable through a peephole.
“The show is about playing with the idea of seeing things you shouldn’t be seeing, like other peoples’ secrets and lies, but also being viewed based on a piece of different information you’ve put into the world,” says Prager. “People can make up entire stories about a person based on one single piece of information.”