Cultured Magazine

Winter 2016

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304 PRAGER SISTERS, REVEALED W Artists Alex and Vanessa Prager engage their audience with work that both conceals and reflects. Maxwell Williams spends a day in Downtown L.A. with the Pragers. PORTRAIT BY JEFF VESPA e live in a time of masks, not the least of which is our own public persona. We put on our face, we Snap and 'gram, we influence and brand manage. All the while, our masks stay neatly in place. I'm not disparaging masks. At times, they are necessary—should we take them off, we would be writhing masses of emotion. At night, when Kierkegaard suggests we take them off, I posit that some masks stay in place and remain a part of us. With very different methods of execution, sisters Alex and Vanessa Prager both dissect people intensely in their work. Looking is not necessarily a form of unmasking, but seeing is. And in this dissection, both Prager sisters allow us to see their subjects, to consider the people behind the masks. Vanessa Prager's paintings are large portraits—she enjoys working on eight- foot canvases these days—done in what she describes as a cross between Pointillism and Maximalism. This translates to tortured souls rendered with thousands of thick richly colored marks, a nearly 3D, ultra-impasto style that places her in a historical lineage after Frank Auerbach or Willem de Kooning. Vanessa told me her subjects aren't particular people in her life but amalgamations, the marks acting as surrogates for their emotional baggage. "I just want the subjects to be raw, naked," says Vanessa. "Don't tell me how your day is. That's what all the color and texture is. My cat threw up this morning, I bought a nice Mercedes, my house is great, I have four ex-husbands. But behind all that there's just a chill dude who doesn't maybe need to talk today. And that's okay, too." She is sitting in a cushion-filled romper room in her Downtown Los Angeles Arts District apartment. Plush animals from the film The Secret Life of Pets are on the cushions. In the film, as soon as pet owners shut the door, the dogs, cats and other house animals take off the mask of pet-dom and start talking, listening to heavy metal and playing video games. "I definitely think there's a similar string that we're both following in our work, which is the mask that people wear, the façade that can be ugly or haunting, and who the person is beneath it," says Alex when I interview her earlier in the day on the same cushions. "Her work has gotten a lot stronger with the paint getting messier and more sculptural." Alex, 37, is five years older than Vanessa, and her oeuvre has reached a very wide audience with works that are no less anxiety-filled. She has shown her photographs (lush, hyperreal scenes that have been compared favorably to Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia) and Lynchian short films (which star Hollywood actors like Bryce Dallas Howard and Elizabeth Banks) at venues such as the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas and Galerie des Galeries in Paris. The most recent was filmed in collaboration with the Paris Ópera Ballet, and is full of a terrifying anxiety about audiences, a line Alex has been following since her Face in the Crowd series. When Benjamin Millepied, the then-director, invited her to do the film as part of his initiative to work with artists at the Ballet, it took Prager "like an hour" to come up with the concept. In the film, La Grande Sortie,

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