Amidst a global pandemic, social protests, and the politicization of just about everything that plagued 2020, and continues to seep into 2021, artist Vanessa Prager found some light. Like most of us, Prager too endured the isolating, confusing, and heavy new reality we all faced over the last year. At first debilitated by worry and not being able to tap into her creativity, Prager eventually turned to her artistic practice to help guide and focus her energy into a cathartic body of work.
In her much anticipated solo exhibition, Static, with Diane Rosenstein Gallery, Prager reveals a series of new oil paintings that follows the Los Angeles-based artist’s exploration of the mixed emotions that came with such a strange year. Big, heavy, seemingly dripping canvases boast thick globs of lightly-colored paints, that at first glance appear dense and impenetrable, but upon stepping back, offer an airy, enveloping sensation.
Prager’s ability to balance the dense with the light mimics the balancing act we’ve all become accustomed to—taking the good with the bad, and finding the elusive moments of warmth and brightness to keep us moving forward.
Tell me about your upcoming show, Static; how long have you been working on the pieces that will be featured?
I started working on this show in April. It was such an intense year, I didn’t know what to make or what to do. After doing nothing for weeks, then months, I thought I should just try to do something to clear my head and I figured if anything came out of it, then great. As I got more into the work, I felt like it could capture some of the mixed emotions that I was feeling and what I assume a lot of people were feeling at the time. It was such a strange year; I don’t know if we’ll have another one like it and I don’t know if there’s ever been one in history. While making the work I figured out a lot of things, like how I was actually feeling and what I wanted to express. Then it became important to me to make a body of work and share it. I think it’s important to help capture periods in time. I started noticing that the art world was slowing down—there weren’t a lot of good movies coming out, you couldn’t go see art shows, there weren’t a lot of good books. Given how tough of a year we were all enduring it wasn’t too surprising, but at the same time it was a little bit surprising.
Something along the lines of if people are quarantined inside and left with themselves and their thoughts, they’d try to get those feelings out somehow.
Yeah! I was surprised I wasn’t seeing more indie type projects. At the same time I do think that everyone was so shocked by our new reality that people were trying to process things, causing a delay in creativity. I started thinking about how important going and viewing art was to me. It helps me know that people are alive and a community is still thriving. Even if it’s not necessarily my preferred media, viewing and exposing yourself to different forms of art is such a part of what brings us together. I started feeling more like it was my duty to get work down and to put my voice into something. Even though it didn’t feel like 2020 would be the time to show it, it just seemed like it had to be done; aside from that fact that throwing myself into my work helped me personally.
That makes sense. You’re able to lose yourself in the work and not just fixate on the events that we encountered this past year.
It’s such a great gift that artists have in whatever media and I can’t even imagine what I’d do without this outlet.
You mentioned that creating this body of work was this opportunity for you to tap into the feelings and emotions or ideas that you were having during this time being in quarantine. Can you tell me a little bit about those feelings and how you harnessed them to inform the pieces you created for the show?
I think I felt a huge loss, not in the sense of traditional grief, just in the sense that things will never be the same. Things will never ever be the same. I don’t know in what ways, but I am one-hundred percent certain, even if it’s that everyone’s mindset is different. We all have this shared experience that was very traumatic. There’s no chance that things will be as they were, we’ve been pushed outside of our comfort zones in general and feel exposed. It’s like the stripping away of all of this coziness and familiarity and warmth.
The future is so unknown at this point for so many people and I too was feeling that way. I started thinking, “Where does one go from there?” We all are still alive, well not all of us, but many of us are still alive. You have to move forward and there’s no getting out of it. It’s like when you want to stay in bed all day, but it’s been a year now so you can’t just stay in bed all day anymore. I started thinking about the building of the future and what that could or might look like. Where might I or somebody turn for happiness in the future? Everything has felt so scarce this year, and the physical, economic, and social divide has become even more apparent. This year has really separated everyone—when was the last time you hugged somebody or said hi to someone on the street? These paintings are really textured and created in this sort of blanket style, that could serve as giving everyone a big hug, because that’s what I would want. The layers help to capture the good and the bad for me. It’s all still there and nobody knows what’s going to happen, but we could make it nice I think. There can be niceness in there and we can find things of beauty and create things again and share things again.
These pieces are much more tactile. Every stroke has that effect where the paint is almost coming off the canvas. How did you come to this style and what made you want to create these kinds of furry and tactile paintings?
In the very beginning I wanted to clean the plate and white it all out to start fresh. But also I really wanted to move into a different style. I used to do really loose brush strokes and kind of layer those loose brush strokes on top of each other and push them together and pull them apart. In this series, I distinctly wanted a more methodical approach. Even though it was kind of tedious in the creation of them, I wanted that. I like that meditative action and the repetitive activity was good for me. I knew what I wanted the paintings to look like and that’s just how I got there. I had to be patient about it, which was a good thing for me at the time too.
In the past you have embellished your pieces with figurative elements. Have you continued to incorporate actual figures in these pieces? Are they just more hidden from the viewer begging them to spend some time with the piece to find or perceive them?
Yes, they’re more hidden. Not all of the pieces. have figures, some of them are still life or floral. They all have something in them though and a lot of them do have hidden figures. I wanted to bury the images a lot more because it seemed like the right thing to do for the series. I wanted it to be dense heaviness that was light at the same time because I think that dense heaviness is what everyone is feeling, but I could also put the imagery in the distance and sort of have it out of reach. That seemed to make sense to me in terms of the physical distance everyone was feeling and not being able to travel, and the kind of claustrophobia that goes along with that. It’s dense but also wide open at the same time.
I feel like since your pieces are quite large and you’re using oil paints, you’re kind of working on multiple parts of the piece simultaneously, letting a section dry while working on another. What is that process like, and how do you find the balance between the micro and the macro?
Usually I’ll work on multiple paintings at once, so I can go back and forth. If I’m stuck on one I’ll move on to the next one. They’re all in the studio at the same time so it can be a little bit overwhelming, but it’s good because I can step back. These are more abstract and color-based so they don’t need as much of the perfection of stepping back to make sure that things are positioned perfectly. It’s more of like a loose drippy image within layers. So I mainly go back and forth, stepping back, then coming in close.
You’ve always used a heavy hand of paint but this is probably the most heavy handed you’ve been. Are the pieces composed and planned out or is it more loose and instinctual when you’re faced with the canvas?
Sometimes it’s really drawn out and I’ll sketch it then paint in whatever the image is. Often it’ll end up changing or I’ll sometimes just start from none of it and go from there. So it just depends on the piece.
There are more whites, light blues, and pinks coming through. Was that an intentional color choice? Did you purposely start using a lighter color palette?
I wasn’t trying to add to the heaviness of the year, so the colors made sense in that way. These colors also matched what I thought when I thought about smoke and thick air, which is more what I think I was feeling. When you’re in a room filled with smoke, there’s nothing there and it’s very light, but also it’s everywhere, so that seemed more appropriate than dark or heavy colors. On a lot of days it didn’t seem like anything was happening, and my life didn’t change much because I mostly work in my back studio. So that color palette was trying to capture that everything is wrong, but I’m okay.
I can relate to that feeling, because when I look outside right now I’m like, “Wow it’s a beautiful day out here,” but at the same time there are ungodly amounts of people dying and suffering. It’s a beautiful day, I’m here in my house and everything is fine, but the world isn’t!
It’s like the apocalypse!
I’m sure you’re proud that despite the unreal year we’ve had, you’ve created a body of work in 2020. Are there any other moments from this year that you can remember being really proud of?
That’s a good question. I have a young son so I’m mostly engrossed with him when I’m not in the studio. He’s super happy and it’s such a breath of fresh air. I’m proud to be able to live a somewhat normal life through a lot of world adversity. It shows that you could go into a cocoon and separate yourself from the world, and in a lot of ways I do because I don’t connect to the internet all day and I try not to read a lot of news, but there’s only so much of that you can do while still trying to be a part of the world.
I’m glad you brought up your son because I saw an adorable photo of you in your studio painting with him hanging on your chest asleep. How has motherhood affected your creative practice? Not just time wise, but the ideas that you’re putting into your pieces or how you’re feeling about your art now. Have things changed since becoming a mom?
For me, I feel more responsibility for the future and I’ve definitely heard that a million times from other mothers. Especially in a year like this one. I think when making work, it’s really easy as an artist to go down a dark road and kind of feel all your feelings and never come out of them and share them and get accolades for that. More recently, with having a son, I feel there’s a responsibility to share the other side of it and try to find the goodness, the lightness, and the beauty in things, which the world doesn’t have enough of right now. I think often that’s associated with denying all the bad or ignoring it or somehow brushing it under and making it worse, but I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a way to know that a lot of bad things exist, but also to be happy or allow for happiness to create beauty. That’s more the mission I’ve come into in recent times and it’s quite hard actually.
For more from Vanessa Prager, follow her on Instagram.
Photography by Cara Robbins.