The familiar and inimitably seductive aroma of oil paint floods the senses within seconds of entering the gallery and, without so much as a glimpse, it is immediately apparent that a great number of tubes (possibly vats) of paint have been sacrificed in the making of this exhibition. Turning the corner and entering into a maze of temporarily erected, half-height, white walls the olfactory suspicions are validated once a series of small, but densely painted panels come into view. Real or imagined, faces emerge from the garish, inch-thick layers of pale pink and orange paint, then are again submerged in the heavy materials.
Presenting paintings similar to those seen last year at the Richard Heller Gallery, this is the LA-based, self-taught artist, Vanessa Prager’s first solo exhibition in New York. The installation of flimsy drywall partitions is not out of place at The Hole, where scrappy exhibition design is a well-tried and often effective strategy for interrupting white cube assumptions. Soon, however, the function of the thin walls becomes evident, as many of them have been fitted with generic apartment-style spyholes, making some of the paintings, particularly the larger ones, viewable only through their cheap telescopic lenses.
Known for producing large, thickly painted, abstract portraits out of her imagination, Prager has attempted to complicate the experience of her paintings by displaying them within a larger installation. Although it feels a bit awkward and heavy-handed, the venue, as well as her inexperience afford her room for unapologetic experimentation.
Prager has blankly entitled the exhibition “Voyeur” to imply that the peepholes are not simply tools to enable optical mixing, while simultaneously
resisting textbook connotations with the use of relatively desexualized subject matter. Prager is pointing more specifically to the current status of viewership as it is increasingly experienced indirectly through social media. By looking through the tiny lenses, her six-foot paintings are reduced to the size of postage stamps and flattened by proximity, much like they would be if viewed on a mobile device. The peepholes, hastily implanted in drywall, offer an alternative; the choice to back away, circumvent the constructed barrier of the wall and enter into an intimate dialogue with the work.
By dedicating efforts toward the installation, her concept seemingly takes precedence over individual works, but then paradoxically leads the viewer back to the physical objects with a revived sensitivity. In one of the more interior rooms a cadmium orange streak of oil paint on the wall evidences an imperfect, but very real instance of engagement.
Upon first glance, the heavy impasto of Prager’s paintings is not so much aggressive, as it is nauseatingly saccharine in its glossy, clashing hues. The convoluted and slow journey through the labyrinth of makeshift rooms does a good job of dissolving the initial tension and allows a communion with the work that would otherwise be absent. Although ostensibly naïve, Prager’s approach grants the viewer an uncommon entry into her process, forced into close quarters with the work such that they might momentarily share in the reverie out of which it was created.