Through The Peep Hole: An Interview With Vanessa Prager

Vanessa Prager comes from a very talented and creative family. Most people know her sister, Alex Prager, and her larger than life cinematic portraits of people and crowds in surrealistic situations. However, the younger Prager is making a name for herself with her figurative oil paintings that verge on abstract sculptures. Faces, in a swirling, kinetic puzzle of colors and gashes of paint, seem less abstract as you pull away from the canvas. Prager’s work is currently on view as part of her first solo exhibition in New York – or outside of of Los Angeles – the Hole Gallery. The opening night of the exhibition was hosted by actor and comedian Fred Armisen, who counts himself as a fan of Prager’s work. The show, entitled "Voyeur," is interesting in that some of the works can only be viewed through a peep hole. The concept came from the artist’s thoughts about privacy, or lack thereof, in a hyper-digital world. Nonetheless, it is an interesting concept for showing figurative art in a century that has mostly abandoned the canvas as a relic of yesterday’s artists. Last Sunday, we got a chance to visit Prager’s studio in Downtown Los Angeles. As you walk through the door, the smell of oil paint is overwhelming and intoxicating. In the following conversation, we talk about her influences as an artist, her process and how Fred Armisen fits into the picture. 

OLIVER KUPPER: How did you know you wanted to become an artist? Was it partly inspired by your sister’s pursuits?

VANESSA PRAGER: Well, it was weird. I went to boarding school when I was a teenager, for high school. When I was there, I started drawing. Those were the first signs of it. Weirdly, at the same time, she was down here starting to do photography. But you know, coming back to LA after I graduated, that was when I decided I wanted to do something in the arts. There were a few parts of that. One, I realized you had to get a job in LA and have a career, which wasn’t really something I thought about before then. Also, I had learned enough about myself that I was not really conducive to taking orders, doing nine to five. At the same time, my sister started having art shows. I think I went to her first one when I was seventeen. A bunch of our friends around that time were artists and photographers.

KUPPER: There was an energy going on. 

PRAGER: Yeah. It was a really real thing. It wasn’t like we were all in Paris smoking and talking about art. I saw that there was this thing that you could do. It was a job for them. I don’t remember making a conscious decision after one specific thing. Around that time, after school, you wonder, what kind of job am I going to get?

KUPPER: So were your parents artists? Were they creative?

PRAGER: They were creative in their spirit. They’re not professional artists. My mom has been getting more into it. She's starting this vegan chocolate company. I consider a lot of things art. They definitely have the artistic mindset. That was definitely instilled into us. Art was a valuable thing for us growing up, more than objects. We didn’t have a lot of money, but ideas were important. That was one of the better things they could have given to us. It was always encouraged. When I started drawing, my mom was like, “Hey, you could sell these.”

KUPPER: So it seemed like a reality?

PRAGER: Yeah, it seemed like a reality. Alex is five years older than me, so she was already doing stuff when I was seventeen. I’m pretty active; when I get an idea I do something about it. But how you go about doing something like showing art – I know a lot of people wonder and never find out. To me, it was just looking at a lot of other people doing it.

KUPPER: Are there any other painters that you’re inspired by?

PRAGER: It’s hard, because I’m a painter, to view art without a critical eye. I definitely enjoy art, but ever since I was seventeen, I always look at art like – how did they do that? What’s going on there? You’re dissecting the thing. It’s hard for me to just purely enjoy things. Of course, I do. Whenever I see Lucian Freud for example, I’m in awe. I love somebody who can paint well. I love paintings. I’m just drawn into them.

KUPPER: Figurative art is relatively rare these days. It’s more conceptual. People aren’t sitting in front of a canvas as much anymore.

PRAGER: No. For a few years prior to doing this series, I was like, what am I doing? It really was a breakdown. I’m doing a really old-school thing in modern times, but I don’t feel old-school. I feel super modern in my being. I had to think about that. I think that’s how I came about this series. People would pose the question, “Why painting in 2016?” Why paint? Why paint with oil? There are so many things against the medium that don’t work in modern times. But then I realized my real love for it. I really took it apart. There’s something about it that I just love. That’s when I broke into this whole new thing. And I don’t paint in a classical way. I use the figure, which people do time and time again. But I do it in a way in which I feel I’m using it now.

KUPPER: Do you have any rituals before you start working?

PRAGER: I like to clean up and make the space my own. I really liked moving to this studio because it’s containable. I had a really big studio in Glendale that I shared before. It was always kind of hard to get each nook mine. Here, I like to water my plants. I get really bad when I’m in show. Things die. At the end of the month, I re-gather. I like throwing things away and cleaning out. I really like not having crap around. I’m a big fan of the trashcan.

"Life isn’t perfect. Things shouldn’t be perfect. I don’t like perfection. What is perfection anyway? History is a part of life, a part of now. The layering was a change for me to put everything together and have it all still be a part of the thing."

KUPPER: No clutter.

PRAGER: Yeah, no clutter. But there are little nooks. If I’m okay with them, then it’s okay. If I get into certain weird head space, I’ll do certain things. I’ll go walking or hiking. If I obsess over one stroke, and the rest of the painting isn’t working, I have to destroy what I’m attached to. Sometimes, it’ll pin me to a spot. Sometimes I end up making something that I love. But most of the time, I have to roll with it all and destroy it.

KUPPER: So you’ll start over completely if you feel something isn’t going in the direction you want it to go in?

PRAGER: For sure. Or I’ll just change it in a really dramatic way. If a face is going a certain direction and it’s just not working, oftentimes, I’ll turn the canvas over and do it on another thing. I always say that it’s telling me at the same time that I’m telling it what it’s going to be. I think that’s important for this kind of work. I never painted abstract before, but it totally borders on that. I can’t do it alone. It has to be an organic, flowy thing. There has to be something in the pure substances that tell me what needs to be there.

KUPPER: Your work started off much more realistic, and it became more abstract. Was that evolution natural?

PRAGER: Like I said, right before I started doing this series, I sat back and was like, why am I painting? What is that I like about it? How will it fulfill the thing that I want to get out into this world? This world, the one that we live in now, not the 1600s or the 1950s. Will it be able to interact with people? Essentially, that’s the purpose - for it to interact with people. In thinking about all that, it changed. It wasn’t quite there for it before. The style I was painting in before didn't make sense for all of those questions.

KUPPER: Your first solo shows have been happening recently. It looks like you’re just getting ready to explore that.

PRAGER: Totally. Had I gone to college, I probably wouldn’t have shown until last year. I started doing pop ups, little things here and there, in stores for one night only. While I was doing that, everyone got to see it. Good, bad, ugly, whatever - it just was. Had I been in school during that time, people wouldn’t have seen the work.

KUPPER: Or only students would have seen it.

PRAGER: Yeah, and they would have tore it to shreds, and I would have cried. [Laughs.] I equate it to that because that’s what makes sense to me. This is the work that I’m really proud of. There is a difference to me. I was still learning then. It’s a matter of figuring out how to release your feeling. Until you do that, you’re always reaching for that. I think I’ll always be exploring new ways to do stuff. That’s the job of an artist.

KUPPER: Part of that process seems like a layering. That seems to be a distinct style of yours. Is that accidental or is that part of it?

PRAGER: It’s part of it. It’s a big part of it. Life isn’t perfect. Things shouldn’t be perfect. I don’t like perfection. What is perfection anyway? History is a part of life, a part of now. The layering was a chance for me to put everything together and have it all still be a part of the thing. That’s how I see layering. I don’t use it in the classical oil-painting, glazing sense, which I’m sure some painters think is really annoying. I use it more in a sculptural sense. Topography and maps, even looking at mountains and rocks and stuff, is really inspiring to me. I use that a lot in the layering process. I enjoy painting with the skylight because it has those shadows. You see it in different lights, and everything changes.

KUPPER: Do you see yourself getting into sculpture?

PRAGER: I may. I really like sculpture. It’s just a matter of how. It’s learning another medium or hiring out. The way I envision it is kind of big. I think this is a good way of getting into that. I do like sculpture. I like the idea of it coming into three dimensions.

KUPPER: I want to talk about fans of your work. Fred Armisen is a big fan of your work.

PRAGER: He’s a pal. He’s a big fan of painting and art in general. He’s super cool and supportive. When we met, we just hit it off and chatted about art. He came over to my studio. Now, he’s hosting my show. It’s great because I think he’s so cool, and I love crossing over to new areas of art. I’m from LA, so the way that I envision having an art show isn’t necessarily classic. We have the movie industry here. Of course, I think it should be integrated. The art world shouldn’t be a separate, special area. I love anything that crosses over and opens it up to other groups of people.

KUPPER: The Hole is a great place for that. They’re really experimental in how they show their shows. And Kathy [Grayson] is a great curator.

PRAGER: She’s amazing. It was a really good fit. I’ve known her for years. She loves painting - she is a painter - but she tends to show the super conceptual work. She shows the picture of a painting, work that’s based on the pure idea. She shows less of the classic oil paintings. It was going to be interesting to see how that crossed over. But she loves oil painting. I thought it was a really good match, in the end. She brought a lot of conceptual stuff to it. The idea for “Voyeur” - we totally vibed on that.

KUPPER: Talk about that. That’s a really interesting way to present the work. A lot of the work, you can only view through a peep hole, right?

PRAGER: One of them you literally cannot get to. It’s an eight-foot painting behind a wall. You can only see it through the peep hole. Some of them you look through peep holes. Walls are set up. It’s in a maze-like fashion. In the end, you get to a painting. It has a definite flow. The idea of “Voyeur” was seeing things that you shouldn’t see. It’s messing with the fact that we have so much information these days. People can find out everything about other people before they even meet them.

KUPPER: What’s next after this series?

PRAGER: I don’t know. The show is still up. I always take a moment to relax and regroup after an opening. That was my first time showing in New York, so I had no idea what was going to happen. I just put everything into it for months. I’m going to have an empty studio. It will be a good place to start. I’ll just start making stuff. I’ll see where the next vibe takes me.

Vanessa Prager's exhibition Voyeur is on view until February 28, 2016 at The Hole NYC, 312 Bowery, New York. Text and photographs by Oliver Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE