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Book Review: A Face in the Crowd


Book Review Face in the Crowd By Alex Prager Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Crowds unnerve and excite for both their scattered unpredictability and swarm-like consensus. Alex Prager has sought to dissect their power in Face in the Crowd; not with the street photographer’s intimate immersion, but rather through staged replication and an omniscient remove.

Face in the Crowd. By Alex Prager.
Lehmann Maupin, 2014.
 
Face in the Crowd
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Face in the Crowd
Photographs by Alex Prager
Lehmann Maupin, 2014. 60 pp., illustrated throughout, 9¾x12¾".


Crowds unnerve and excite for both their scattered unpredictability and swarm-like consensus. Alex Prager has sought to dissect their power in Face in the Crowd; not with the street photographer’s intimate immersion, but rather through staged replication and an omniscient remove. Assembled for twelve large-scale color photographs (part of a recent exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art), Prager’s crowds populate not just the street, but the airport, party, theater and beach, painstakingly cast, costumed, staged and lit — in total fabrication and parallel universe. Where everyone is out of place, she sets their mark. Where frenetic motion rules, she stops them in their tracks. Where uncertainty and anxiety manifest, she makes a monument of the awkward, on pause for our scrutiny like so many Duane Hanson sculptures. And then she sets them in motion, giving isolation and disconnection another look in a ten-minute, three-channel video installation, (represented in the catalog with selected stills), where certain characters from the photographs reappear, along with a featured performance by film actress Elizabeth Banks, alone in the crowd.

Face in the Crowd. By Alex Prager. Lehmann Maupin, 2014.

Many staged photographs succeed in that sweet spot between an awareness of their elaborate fiction and fabrications and a suspension of disbelief; a place that exalts the narrative potential of banal lives and the illuminated particulars of place. Prager’s work is something else again; more diCorcia than Crewdson, but disinterested in selling us on a place in time. Her titles get the emphasis all wrong — Crowd #10 (Imperial Theatre) and Crowd #7 (Bob Hope Airport) seem to give location pride of place, when in fact each locale is indicated with a broad stroke of largely ground cover — in carpet, sidewalk and sand. It’s the extrapolation of experience that counts; what her players feel in the crowd, not where they are, or in fact even when they are gathered so. All the styling from costume to make-up defies a fixed periodization, blending decades of references, occasionally studded with a clear-cut contemporary pop (Michelle Obama on a tabloid cover). She may be going for timeless, but that doesn’t necessarily equal good taste. The format of the book itself conjures both the over the top styling of a fashion spread (and its oversize shape recalls W magazine, the exhibition’s media sponsor), but also something of those weird salon hairstyle books that never seem quite on trend.

Face in the Crowd. By Alex Prager. Lehmann Maupin, 2014.

In her catalog essay, Corcoran Assistant Curator Kaitlin Booher describes the viewer’s experience as both omniscient and part of the crowd; making a connection to the detached spectatorship of the Baudelaire’s flaneur. An elevated vantage point provides the opportunity to take it all in, and in their eerie precision, Prager’s crowds read like a collection of replicas – part characters and scenes we feel we’ve seen before and part body-snatched doubles that prompt a categorical disconnect. They also feel like the specimens of a bizarre natural history diorama — tied to the real, but set apart in exaggeration and playing to type. Party guests encircle, rejoin or jockey for position. Airport inhabitants wait and worry, hurry and hustle and go with the flow. And then, one figure breaks the mold and stands out from the crowd, transfixed and transported, unsure of their place. When they sometimes return our gaze, breaking the fourth wall of Prager’s productions, they lend a certain meta aspect to the images and reveal her take on individual consciousness within the crowd, an unfolding cognizance in recollection and re-creation. Prager’s witting (or questioning) insiders are usually women, and like her other works’ leading ladies and damsels in distress, put on an affectionate burlesque that’s entirely her own.—KAREN JENKINS

KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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