[February 1 2022]
interview and photos by JETHRO TURNER
American artist Alex Prager speaks on the creative process behind “Part One: The Mountain” with Jethro Turner.
On view now at Lehmann Maupin until March 5th.
JETHRO TURNER — What does the symbol of the mountain mean for you, and how did you want to convey that through the pictures?
ALEX PRAGER — It’s this ancient place in storytelling that’s symbolic of a location that we go to to experience a very private, important, transformative moment. It’s like anything can happen there. I was really trying to explore everything that I’ve been so frustrated and questioning about – there are so many unknowns about the future, and it’s just such a big question mark. There are so many feelings kind of crashing against one another. I wanted that manic kind of dance of emotions and chaotic inner turmoil, and I wanted the figures to feel almost convulsive when they’re experiencing this. And so it’s very psychological and symbolic and representative of that sort of more spiritual place. The times of day in the work are really important, too, because that’s also been a huge theme in the last two years. The concept of time has been such a big question mark for people; we’ve just been through two years, but feels like everything has been standing still in a way. The days go by and people are like: ‘I have no idea what day it is, I have no idea what month it is, what have I even done this year?’. So it’s all taking place on the same symbolic mountain, but people are experiencing their very private moments in isolation.
JETHRO TURNER — The isolation aspect is really interesting about it. Because so much of your work is about groups of people, and the energy flow between different figures. And these works are all single figures. At the same time, so much of the show is about the idea of reconnecting people through experiences. What drove you to focus on the individual figures?
ALEX PRAGER — Well, how we’ve been experiencing the past two years is very isolated, physically, and I think emotionally. People have been grappling with their own reprioritizing of their lives and maybe having to scrap all their dreams – some people literally had to throw away their careers to move forward in this new world. So there’s been a lot of transformation for people for good or bad. And so to have anyone else in that picture while someone’s going through such an important transformation, it just made no sense. It didn’t even cross my mind. To be honest, I knew that they were going to be portraits from the moment I started percolating ideas. I hadn’t done portraits in so long – I think the last time was like 2007 or 2010, or something like that. This time I looked to August Sander’s ‘Citizens of the Twentieth Century’, I looked at Irving Penn’s ‘Small Trades’, I obviously looked at Robert Longo’s ‘Men in the Cities’ and at Philippe Halsman. Those were my four anchors to begin the research for this series. And the idea of doing smaller, more classic sized portraits of people felt like the right thing to get people to look at each other again, because the act of seeing each other was really important to me, in order to get that little tiny bit of understanding from one another again. We’ve been so severed physically. The way we communicate physically is very underrated. Like, if we just sat in a room together and never said a word to each other, we would still feed off energy and our senses, our sense of smell and the scents we put out to communicate, and the way that the rhythm of our heartbeat changes when we’re around one another. There are so many ways that we communicate with each other, so to tell people they cannot physically be around each other is so crazy. Who even knows what that’s done to people psychologically? And then also, our verbal communication has been so severed and polarized and we’ve kind of gone into two different camps. In a way we’ve almost been forced by survival instincts to choose a side. It’s so unnatural to be that black and white. People are so much more complex than that – we have one strong opinion one day, and the very next day, somebody might tell us something that completely changes our point of view, and we feel completely the opposite. And that’s totally fine. That’s how humans work. And that’s how we learn from each other, and we understand each other, by telling these stories to each other, and we change each other, we evolve with those stories and, that’s all very natural and organic. So I wanted to use that tool of portraiture to get people to see each other again. Because it’s in the details that we find love for one another.
JETHRO TURNER — There’s so much dreamlike symbolism in the characters as well. And this kind of blurry Americana around the way that they’re presented, with something very twentieth century mixed with little elements of the contemporary. How do those characters come to you? Are they from your dreams, or do you sit down and imagine them?
ALEX PRAGER — I was definitely pulling from archetypes – to use classical archetypes in telling those stories is a valuable tool. Because just by seeing someone that you kind of feel like you already know, there’s a sense of familiarity that comes with it. And in familiarity, there’s a sense of affinity. And then the subject that I’m grappling with in this work is very dark and difficult. It’s not the easiest subject matter to wrap your head around. Really, I’m just asking questions in the work. There are no answers there. And just by reflecting the way we’ve been feeling, the way I’ve been feeling, there is some sort of catharsis that comes from that. I also always love to infuse these works with things that I find funny or things that are wildly fascinating. For instance, the Prozac in one picture – that was kind of based on the story that I heard on the news that 48% of women right now are on antidepressants in America. That’s a staggering figure. So the details are all in there for a reason.