Vanessa Prager: Ultraviolet at Richard Heller Gallery

Vanessa Prager: Ultraviolet

Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

By Amy Kaeser

Through June 17th


Vanessa Prager’s third solo show at Richard Heller Gallery is a series of impasto-abstracted self-portraits. The work in Ultraviolet delves deeper into the artist’s psyche detailing the interrelationship between the art object and the unconscious drive of the artist. Whether Prager had a psychoanalytic theory in mind when creating this body of work is unknown, but the link between the heavily abstracted self-portraits and the unconscious mind of the artist seem to bear fruit. Prager operates in both small and large-scale for this show as well as the addition of untraditional materials in the use of neon lighting as a framing device on several panels.

At close examination, the individual pieces work on an intimate level; the thick paint captures the gesture of the brush Prager employees–swift, short strokes build up pigment as features of a face peering out from the canvases. The most compelling pieces in the show are those that obscure and only suggest feature of the face or body thus leaving the viewer to wonder if a portrait exists at all; Salt of the Earth (2017), an oil on panel with neon frame is a tightly focused image of what could be considered facial features. The eyes stare out as dark pools cast against a thick application of grey-green skin. The features neither confirms nor denies as belonging to the artist, the androgyny of the sitter in each work only adds to the abstract nature of Prager’s series. Utilizing the artificial neon light as a frame, Prager emphasizes the built-up paint as deep valleys in shadow and the raised ridges in highlight. The dualities of light and dark work to further abstract to almost grotesque levels these self-portraits.

The diptych, I Don’t Want Warmth From Your Sun (2017) stands out as an example of Prager’s interest in experimenting with size and the dislocation of space. The figure in Prager’s large-scale work (96 x 96 inches), switching from panel to canvas, mimics the trope of the “Reclining Odalisque,” a sexualized archetype of the nineteenth and twentieth-century white-Europeans obsession with the exotic “Other.” Here, dark and luscious greens and blues, swirling and shifting on the surface render the image nearly unrecognizable, surround the figure.  The darker palette of the double-paneled work is in stark contrast to its counterpart, Prager’s other large-scale piece No Shrinking Violet (2017). This oil on canvas is bright and airy, the figure in repose horizontally across the surface, welcoming and subdued. The figure in I Don’t Want Warmth From Your Sun challenges the viewer much like Édouard Manet’s Olympia (c. 1863) rather than the romantic version à la Jean Auguste Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque of nearly five decades earlier. It would be hard to think Prager did not have at least one variation in mind when capturing the body posed in such a way.

The drawback of a solo show is that the works live or die by the ability of the singular artist to express certain attitudes or explore a connection with the audience through the art object. Prager succeeds in turning a critical eye on herself, a significant evolution in her practice, but where some pieces connect and ask Prager to reveal her desires (because what else is a self-portrait other than a reflection of our ego in paint?), others leave little to contemplate.

Vanessa Prager: Ultraviolet is now on view until June 17th, 2017.

Vanessa Prager lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally in both solo and group shows including the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA). Prager’s work is held in private collection both in the United States and England.

Richard Heller Gallery

2525 Michigan Ave. B-5A

Santa Monica, CA 90404



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