How does the life of an artist play into reception of their work? Sometimes knowing about the artist substantiates the work, giving the viewer a source and a history from which the message within the work is coming from. In some cases, the artist’s persona is completely separated from the work, making the work find context from where it is placed rather than who it comes from. And then there are those whose work is a reflection of themselves. When looking at Face In The Crowd, a new film and dual solo exhibition by photographer Alex Prager at both Lehmann Maupin Galleries in New York, it’s hard not to acknowledge Prager’s authorship, since it’s inherent to the work itself – even though it is about discovering others.
Lehmann Maupin’s Soho location has, within its exhibition, large scale photographs of crowds and a series of quadriptychs which depict not only close ups of the larger scenes, but portraits highlighting certain individuals. The large scale photographs depict various states of people congregating, at a beach, a terminal, or a foggy sidewalk. Like much of her previous work, these scenes feel straight from a mid 20th century film (from the “Golden Age”), with each person being costumed to fit a specific character. Much like the Mad Men series, the images Prager creates are very likeable images, as it draws on popular culture’s selective nostalgia. However, the characters in these images are not real people, but rather highly stylized condensations of people constructed by Prager, each with the ability to have an individual narrative surrounding them in their given situation. This is the trademark of much of Prager’s work. Sourced not only from film, but also from popular culture’s collective memory, the depictions of people in Face in the Crowd are specific, and yet made vague by certain contrary time-specific items (the most notable being a tabloid one man is holding, which features Michelle Obama on its cover).
Citing the feeling of loneliness within a sea of faces as the inspiration for the project, Prager created Face In The Crowd as a meditation on not only the collective identity of a group of people, but a search for the individual identities within a crowd. The photographs position the viewer far above the crowd, looking down similarly to Martin Hansford’s “Where’s Waldo?”. The viewer is detached from the action going on, allowing for the individuals within the crowd to become prominent, overshadowing the situation they find themselves in. Here the question arises as to how Prager views herself in relation to the people she positioned and photographed. It’s hard to place Prager as the detached sociologist when she has been quoted saying she makes herself uglier on shoots to avoid competition between her and her models. It’s also hard to pin Prager as a voyeur, as she isn’t looking into the lives of others but rather lives she constructed. So, what does she think of those that do surround her?
The gallery’s Chelsea location features not only the continuation of the photographic series (still pairing large scale photographs with quadriptychs similar to film stills), but also a three channel video installation. Entering this installation, the viewer is met with interviews of the now familiar faces found within the crowded pictures in each gallery – with the characters now detached and placed in front of a black background. Several of Prager’s characters tell stories that come from where they found themselves in Prager’s stills. The blackness then explodes into a cinematic frenzy. Where individual stories bounced from screen to screen, what seems to be the Feature Presentation consumes all three. In it we find a dolled up Elizabeth Banks, alone, within her street level apartment. She longingly looks out the window onto a passing crowd, pressing her hand to the window wishing for nothing more than to join them. With a single jump cut, Banks whimsically disappears, and reappears in the center of the crowd. She is elated to be surrounded by so many people. That is, until the noise and commotion become too much for her. Overwhelmed, she frantically looks for a way out. Just as she reaches desperation, the crowd pauses as if frozen in time, and Banks clumsily squeezes out of the frame.
While Prager’s depiction of being one in a sea of many is whimsical and playful, she seems to be making herself out to be someone who enjoys only people that are of her own making. Like Banks’ character, she enjoys looking out onto congregations of people and speculating about their lives. However, when confronted with the reality of those that surrounds her, she lurks back into her own mythical universe where the girls are always pretty, and the men wear suits. It’s not that the world that she creates isn’t fun to be in, it’s just that within this world, supposedly filled with many different individuals, both the face and the crowd are none other than Prager herself.
Face in the Crowd is on view at both Lehmann Maupin locations
January 9th – February 22nd, 2014
201 Chrystie Street & 540 West 26th Street
New York, NY
The film installation, Face in the Crowd, can be found at the Chelsea location on 26th street.
Robert Hickerson is a Brooklyn based artist, who works with video, photography and performance. He is also a contributor to Lintroller.