Alex Prager’s first exhibition at Lehmann Maupin makes a blood pact with the myth of cinema. The gallery’s downtown location hosts large-format stills from Prager’s newest film, A Face in the Crowd, alongside highly staged photographs taken from slightly different angles than those represented in the film. Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea gallery features more of these beautifully rendered, high-quality stills, as well as a viewing room for the three-channel film itself. Posed to look candid, Prager’s series of “crowd shots” were in fact elaborately orchestrated on a Hollywood sound stage, and each participant’s movements and appearance were meticulously directed. The realization of how intensively these shots have been staged is frightening, as Prager deprives us of a choice we are usually able to make in viewing photography: the subconscious organization of a hierarchy of moments. Nothing in Prager’s images can be overlooked; she positions every hair, every gesture, and every moment to seem not real but realistic.
Prager’s lens positions Los Angeles as uncanny valley: a place where reality is never for certain and real life is infected by the cinematic. I am reminded of the audition scene in David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, where Naomi Watts’ character Betty says her heavily scripted lines in a terrifyingly convincing manner, a way we’ve never heard her speak before, even when she was participating in the film’s version of “real life.” For Lynch, as well as for Prager, the script becomes reality as reality becomes the script—or it ceases to matter which is which. This transmutation is uncontrollable and therefore terrifying, and we are sent on a spiraling trip toward a non-place.
As a harbinger of this weird spin, Prager’s film begins with a unibrowed man describing a recurring nightmare about falling off the edge of a cliff. The “man” happens to be Tyson Ritter (recognizable to millennials as the lead singer of pop-punk band The All-American Rejects), inspiring another twinge of uncanny recognition. This is the most compelling aspect of the uncanny, whose dark force Prager harnesses expertly—this edge of the cliff, this excess. The uncanny lingers in those moments where there is too much—the signifier overflows, bleeds onto something else, or bleeds out.
Prager’s narrative charts a woman in trouble (1). In each photograph, as those around her are immersed in the scene, a woman looks upward, subtly illuminated to stand out amid a flurry of movement. Her glance upward is an appeal, a transcendence of the everyday, a realization or daydream that disrupts the concentration (and therefore the reality) of the moving crowd. Prager hired Hollywood actress Elizabeth Banks as the protagonist of her film, and Banks’ face appears as a beacon of familiarity, the perfect culturally relatable archetype of the “troubled woman.”
In a photograph of the busy foyer of a theater, a woman peers open-mouthed through a pair of opera glasses as if toward an unseen balcony that I, the viewer, am standing on. I know she is watching me watch her. I am effectively “made” by this woman; she finds me out, disrupting the security of my anonymous gaze and awarding me my identity as spectator. In Prager’s film, Elizabeth Banks looks through a window onto a busy street; we then see her move through the crowd as the camera peers out of this same window. The frame of the window becomes another psychic terror. As a secondary portal to the frame of the camera, it renders the scene even faker and more dreamlike; anything could suddenly appear beyond its pane.
Portals such as the opera glasses and the window taint the viewer’s participation in Prager’s work with the specter of surveillance. Thanks to Prager’s elaborate stylization, familiar human interactions appear alien, illuminating a double conspiracy highlighted by the women that gaze upward. Not only are these crowds being watched—they are, in fact, designed to be watched.
The paranoia of a “reality that has been staged” is a fairly basic conspiracy theory, but it is the uncanny emotional depth and shrewd direction by Prager that make this particular work feel so eerie. Prager’s film is dramatically scored, and a vibrant red “THE END” flashes down a very old-cinema black hole to mark the narrative’s final moment. Prager’s work pays homage to the giant mechanism of “cinema”; the way in which cinema as an ideal not only produces culture but (perhaps in the largest conspiracy of all) manipulates our understanding of continuity, of empathy, of loneliness and of catharsis.
A Face in the Crowd is on view at Lehmann Maupin through February 22, 2014.
(1) Also the vague tagline of David Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire.