New York

Alex Prager, Run, 2022, HD video, color, sound, 7 minutes 53 seconds.

Alex Prager, Run, 2022, HD video, color, sound, 7 minutes 53 seconds.

Alex Prager

Alex Prager commands ardent enthusiasm for her Technicolor photographic tableaux, frequently of urban crowds stage-managed for maximum visibility. A young blonde woman always seems to appear in these scenes. Her glances to the camera, or the way she’s theatrically lit, usually elevate her above the hurly-burly. Throughout, this character—variously anxious, distraught, claustrophobic—radiates an interior crisis that is never quite named. Prager’s work often resembles the beloved Twilight Zone dramatugy in that it too embodies the disruption of the anodyne and conventional by unexpected occult forces, rendered as though it all took place in a generic past. Her art candidly recycles a litany of familiar tropes from visual culture: Here, a Joel Sternfeld pastiche; there, a nod to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). The work also features the requisite David Lynch reenactment, and more Hitchcock than one can shake a stick at. Prager’s art appeals in its shared cultural vocabulary and stylized simplification.

Yet, unlike the work of other artists who fabricate images exploring cinematic language, such as Holly Andres or Stan Douglas, Prager’s output does not maneuver in the provocative arc between photographic fact and fiction (an increasingly alarming binary in our worrisome political life) but remains resolutely made up, a diorama of mannerisms.

A short film was the centerpiece of Prager’s solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin. Run, 2022, begins in a wholesome beige Mayberry-type place recognizable to all from our lifetime of TV. A large mirrored ball is rolled onto a sidewalk by a quartet (called “ominous figures” in the film’s credits) that we know is nefarious by their dark sunglasses. As the camera zooms in on the insertion of a coin into a vending machine, the sphere is released, causing mayhem and pratfalls (an older woman gets hurled into a garbage can as it rolls). In the best tradition of animated cartoons, the ball comically runs people over and knocks down a fire hydrant, inevitably causing an arc of spewed water postcollision. Meanwhile, the film’s heroine, Cecily, is distracted from her task of mailing a letter. After running out of the path of the malevolent orb, she discovers an intersection littered with prone, unconscious people, whom she revives. They arise in choreographed unison, each one brushing themselves off instead of bursting into song.

It is unclear whether Run is a farce, as its screwball moments are satiric gestures that contrast with the rhetoric of heroic healing at the film’s end. Parody is, however, reserved for the cast of supporting citizenry: Regardless of the pleasure of their lucid presence, they are a chorus of central-casting caricatures, like the cowboy clutching a pack of Marlboros—clichés from a yesteryear when “individuality” was a theatrical construct, a leftover from the days of Gilligan’s Island. Perhaps this strategy is being used to promote the purpose of the work’s main figure, but she, too, remains more stereotype than archetype. With the exception of Face in the Crowd, 2013, a film by Prager that offered intriguing voice-overs and interior monologues for some of its characters, her movies do not emphasize talk. One was reminded of the importance of writing and dialogue in providing narrative film with depth and complexity.

Prager’s work is dazzling in its ambition, spectacle, and commitment—indeed, she is a skillful stylist. This pantomime, however, in its seeming embrace of narrative ambiguity, feels more uninformed or vague than anything else. Photography can preserve the past, extracting an instant from the density of memory that can have a profound effect on the viewer. Yet in Prager’s exhibition here, the past is often nothing more than a display of hyperbolic and shallow production values, full of visual formulas that are constructed to seduce. According to Oscar Wilde, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Unfortunately, this remarkable observation offers an all-too-succinct coda to the work in this show.