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Work / Art

Vanessa Prager on embracing the chaos of life in her work, and collaborating with her sister, Alex Prager

Vanessa Prager’s paintings depict the female form in various degrees of abstraction. Her busy, tactile, portraits blend form and landscape in a sort-of kaleidoscope of colour and expressive mark-making; showing “the complexity of character, and the years of experience, good or bad, in each portrait”, she says. “When I started working with paint, I wanted everything to be great and something akin to perfect, but perfect is an impossible standard and quite unattainable. Somewhere along the way, when life got more wild and messy, so did my painting, and I just kind of embraced it” Vanessa explains. “The layers, imperfections, the smooth glossy parts next to the pokey peaks and the bubbled extra bits, the excessive amount of paint and colours, it all just kind of made sense to me.”

Last month, Vanessa’s portrait of Maya Rudolph graced the cover of The New York Times Magazine, but all was not what it seemed; with the portrait on the cover being a photograph of Vanessa’s painting – by her sister, Alex Prager – and Maya herself creeping through the portrait. “I was lucky enough to have Maya sit for the painting a few days before the cover shoot”, Vanessa tells It’s Nice That. “We did her hair, makeup and clothing just as we did in the final photo. I painted her pretty realistically, but we still wanted it to clearly be a painting, with just enough ‘what’s happening here?’”

The portrait was inspired by the work of Alice Neel, “classic, yet the concept made it modern”, and the realistic nature of the painting harked back to Vanessa’s earlier work, when she was seeking perfect representations of form. Somewhat ironically, once her painting was complete, Vanessa had to cut half of the figure out “to be replaced with their real counterpart”: “I did it as if that weren’t the case, and on the day of the shoot I cut each element out. We did the face first, then one hand and then her arm and leg, and Alex took photos as we went.”

Next on Vanessa’s calendar is her first UK solo show, Soft Serve at the Kristin Hellegjerde Gallery in London. “I’ve been working on bringing the two styles together – realism and textures abstraction – for my newest work, which I am very excited about”. Of her research process, Vanessa says: “I reference classical forms and figures, but I look at them at the beginning stages of a painting and then not much once I get into the work. I think whoever paints the picture or takes the photo, or whatever it is, instils their background within it whether they intend to or not.” Interested in the history of paintings of women by men, and women being subject to the male gaze, Vanessa isn’t afraid of tackling such complex questions in her work: “Some people stay out of ‘what it means to be a woman’, but you can’t help but notice all of the extra attention or critique women are subject to. Traditionally women have been given a role and that role has been the less powerful one.”

“Women are depicted time and again as bodies or objects; in advertising, as a love to be attained, a standard to be maintained, etc. Any stepping outside of that narrow role comes with a new scrutiny and intensity. It can all be a bit much” Vanessa explains. “In my paintings I try to roll it all together and capture it not as a negative but as a positive, it all only strengthening the figures and making them thicker, sturdier and having more depth, quite literally even.”

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Vanessa Prager

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Vanessa Prager

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Vanessa Prager

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Vanessa Prager

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Vanessa Prager/The New York Times Magazine