Alex Prager at Yancey Richardson, New York

by Danny Kopel, April 2012

What impresses about Alex Prager’s work is the breadth of influences she has seamlessly honored and incorporated without sacrificing a distinct authorial voice of her own. In Compulsion, the artist’s most recent turn at Yancey Richardson Gallery in Chelsea, Prager reasserts her taste for staged and highly-stylized photographs. Here, images of tragedy and disaster are offset by close-up and close-cropped images of a single eye: separate images, hung separately in separate frames but bearing close relation (spacially and otherwise) to the larger image at hand. Whether these eyes are a detailed view of a subject in the central photographs or whether they constitute an outside witness to the action is unclear. What is clear, however, is the success with which she has appropriated that strategy of conceptualism via Baldessari, fracturing the overall piece and thus protesting the overwhelming tendency of art to unify and present wholly in singular iterations. What is called into question then—by this structural and conceptual conceit, and by the unresolved owner of “the eye”—is the act of looking.

Though the work draws the viewer in on its aesthetic merits alone, the ambiguous function and significance of the isolated eye confounds and commits the viewer most to pursue understanding its presence here. Is this the eye of oppressive surveillance? The silent witness? The tacit accomplice? The voyeur? Each piece would generate these and other questions anew with every viewing. This enigmatic quality accounts for the magnetism that is a through line in all of Alex Prager’s work. But these questions pertain only to the closed universe of Prager’s making. Even more provocative is pondering this act of looking in real time and on our terms, that is to say the relationship of our gaze to the work. If every image presents consummated devastation, and if we are to entertain—at least for now—the notion that “the eye” exists as separate from the scene, we can assume a passive role on its part. This passivity is not unlike our own in the gallery, as we stand in front of these photographs, offering no help or interference.

Looking is the bedrock of all the work in Compulsion: the aforementioned photographs, as well as the intriguing film stills, which lead climactically to La Petite Mort, a new short film by the artist. In it, a woman steps in front of a fast-approaching train. What follows upon the impact is her journey to an imprecise realm, a series of sequences as strange as they are seductive. In one, the central character rises from the water. She is dry, like Narcissus rewound and redeemed, meeting the glares of a host of anonymous onlookers. Less abstract is the narration, engaging Bataille’s discourse about the liminality of death and orgasm, agony and ecstasy;

It has been said that the act of dying and the act of transcendent love are two experiences cut from the same cloth. The former a grand exit, the latter a slow escape. Man’s closest moment to seeing God. 

This is sumptuous subject matter, to say the least, thrown into high relief by the film’s camp coloration and mock-pathos at the expert hands of actress Judith Godrèche. When set in motion, Prager’s house brand of nostalgia, one that is modified by irony and peppered with intentional tastelessness, now allows for interdisciplinary associations. If Prager’s work can be described as cinematic, her influences in that form become apparent; the romance of Douglas Sirk, the assured senselessness of Jack Smith, Almodovar’s knack for self-reference. Prager shares their saturated worldview, saturated in color, in texture, in experience. And for a moment, as viewers, we partake in her strange cosmos, witnesses embroiled in an act of helpless looking, with the breathless inevitability of a train-wreck waiting to happen.

Alex Prager: Compulsion
5 April–19 May, 2012
Yancey Richardson Gallery
New York