Pulp Fiction: Alex Prager: Compulsion at M+B, Los Angeles

Alex Prager (b. 1979) is an American photographer and filmmaker who lives and works in Los Angeles and New York City. This exhibition features a selection of colour photographs as well as a new short film Le Petit Mort, with accompanying film stills. It is part of a series of works that is being exhibited simultaneously at two other galleries – Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until 26 May and Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York until 19 May.

All of Prager’s work possesses a cinematic imagery that has a timeless quality to it whilst at the same time clearly acknowledging the past. It is apparent from the works here that there has been a subtle shift in emphasis in which her characters seem more alien, more detached than in her previous work and are sometimes even missing from the frame. The signature saturated colours remain but the scenes are wider, more expansive, giving greater space for these scenes of staged reality.

Prager excels at creating darkness and these other-worldly textures give depth and integrity to her subject matter. This uneasy reality is a part of what makes her work so engaging and the works exhibited here do not disappoint. Obvious reference points include David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Guy Bourdin and Cindy Sherman but it is the work of Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides that appears to be the most significant influence here. Yet Prager somehow manages to take these elements and create something entirely of her own. This is partly to do with the fact that she manages to transplant the 1950s and 1960s aesthetic into the modern era without making it overtly retro or kitsch.

Prager’s subversive narratives tackle the complexity of observation and uniquely, these staged scenes are arranged asymmetrically with close-ups of singular, heavily made-up eyes. The colours are rich and this emphasis on eyes forms a particularly close and distinctive relationship between artist and viewer. We are spectators who are simultaneously being watched. The eyes are there to assist in decoding the scenes, using multiples gazes to derive true meaning in a world awash with observation and surveillance, effectively asking the question as to who is watching who?

Without exception, all of the images are striking and symbolic, even more so because their titles give them an air of crime-scene photography. 4:01 pm, Sun Valley and Eye #3 (House Fire) (diptych), (2012), is a particularly dramatic example, featuring a house on fire in the middle of a field, the intensity of the flames contrasting starkly with the serene setting. 2 pm, Interstate 10 and Eye #6 (Sinkhole) (diptych), (2012), features a car sinking into a freeway whilst 1:18pm, Silverlake Drive and Eye #2 (Boulder) (diptych) (2012), shows a period car and a huge boulder in the middle of the road. Clearly, for the viewer it is too late to prevent this accident that has occurred – we are present only in the aftermath, compelled to watch but not to act. This is echoed in 11:45 pm, Griffith Park and Eye #4 (Roadside Victim) (diptych), (2012), which is even more graphic in that the accident has clearly only just occurred. A car is featured again in 3:32 pm Coldwater Canyon and Eye #5 (Automobile Accident) (diptych), (2012), as a woman clings perilously and dramatically onto the bumper, suspended mid-air.

The short film, Le Petit Mort, (which translates as “the little death”) with a voiceover by Gary Oldman and shot by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) extends the themes in Prager’s photographs and draws the link between orgasm and death, “the former a grand exit and the latter a slow escape”. It is shown in a separate room which gives a certain sense of detachment and is accompanied by stills from the movie. As with her previous short film, Despair (2010), it is all about suspense, drama and anticipation.

Prager possesses an innate ability to show the darker side of Los Angeles that lives beneath the surface glamour but never goes so deep as to make this truly uncomfortable. Her very personal interpretation of media tragedies is interconnected with similar scenes from the golden age of Hollywood movies which means her work stops short of being gruesome or disturbing and gives it a subtle commerciality that would be equally comfortable in a fashion magazine spread. It all amounts to a beautiful kind of voyeurism as this veneer of perfection outweighs the tragedies within. This may be the singular greatest aspect of Prager’s vision that continues to make her work so thoroughly compelling.

Alex Prager Compulsion, 07-04-2012 until 12-05-2012, M+B Gallery, 612 North Almont Drive, Los Angeles, California 90069. www.mbart.com

Alex Prager 1:18 pm, Silverlake Drive (2012)
© Alex Prager, Courtesy M+B Gallery, Los Angeles

Text: Matt Swain