Alex Prager’s photographs serve a dish of suspense, angst and melancholia. Each image forms its own kind of psychological thriller, populated with a colorful cast of characters. They live in Prager’s 5th dimension, a playful world where unconscious dread and desire are bubbling below the surface. Prager jams cinematic tropes, pulp fiction and a dose of nostalgia into this uncanny space. The distinction between dream memory and reality collapses.
Within her vast oeuvre, the complexity of looking and the desire to be seen are reoccurring explorations. In her 2012 series, Compulsion, eyeballs are the ultimate symbol for vision and power. Take Compulsion #1, photographs of eyes composed as a 3 x 2 grid. There’s nothing clinical about this representation of skin, cells and hair – these eyeballs ooze with expression, emanating fear, anger and suspicion. What visions do they possess? What do these eyes know? The eyes have it…or so the expression goes.
On one hand, Prager’s work addresses the power of looking: she photographs her characters looking at each other or looking out of a window. They stare out into space or into a dark void. They look over their shoulder or up at the sky. She photographs crowds of people looking past each other, audiences watching a screen and performers witnessing their audience. In her 2018 crowd image, Women Now, each character's gaze is distinctly pulled in a different direction; it’s a spectacle of spectacle. Even Prager is looking out from the cover of a tabloid coyly inserted into the scene. The woman in the violet dress in the back left corner catches my eye. She’s removed her glasses and is holding them high above her head, neck cranked back as she peers through the lenses. There’s something righteous about the gesture — like she’s holding her glasses up to the heavens and praying, “give me sight!”
Sure, the whole world is looking, but then again, everyone wants to be seen. Hollywood Squares, 2022, is Prager’s recent limited edition print. It’s a 3 x 4 grid of portraits photographed front and center. The subjects are archetypal characters (the daydreamer, the tourist, the femme fatale, the business professional, the artist…), sitting in solitude. Their expressions are pensive, lonely perhaps. They seem unseen.
At first, I recall the glitz and hanky-panky of the beloved 1970s game show. All too soon, however, I find myself imagining moments after the game has ended and the stage lights have dimmed. Unlike Prager’s crowd images, in this work the grid design and spotlight on black backdrop quarantines each performer in isolation.
Prager draws us into her work as voyeurs. We’re all complicit in the desirous act of looking. Her crowd images are shot from a bird's eye, and we are pulled into the scene (or seen, as it were) from the omnipotent above. I find myself surveying her crowds like a map, gleaning each character for access and information. In Hollywood & Vine (2014), the central red-headed woman is pushing her way through a crowd; the back of her head is center stage in a sea of faces. I scan the image again and again, each time hoping she’ll spin around so our eyes will meet.