Love You Too, Vanessa Prager: part 1Juxtapoz // Thursday, 10 Jun 2010
love you too,
by tommy tung
The day is dying at 6 p.m. on Friday, but the falling curtain means nothing in this one-car garage. Art prevails. Drawings and paintings rule. No car occupies this art studio of Vanessa Prager -- no car would dare -- the space is sanctioned for worlds to be born, some of oil, some of ink. The sunshine is year-round, because the sunshine is hereditary in the Pragers -- observable fact. Also science: Vanessa does not end sentences with paltry periods but with fluttering laughter. In the larger statement of life, the 25-year-old uses punctuation like foreign travel and three-hour art shows.
If these exhibitions are ephemeral, their content is perennial. Worlds hold no borders and characters hold their whispers. They’re chapters of a novel to be read again with care. The work of Little Dream swallows children in colorful copses and marshes. The Hunting and Gaming series steps closer to the subject -- women with animals, stuffed and plastic and held hostage.
Her next project, Love You Too, puts down the paintbrush and picks up the ballpoint pen. Sheet music is reality. Characters are caught in oceans of space and bursts of light, some effacing body parts. Our eyes obey the fetching gradient -- flicks of ink in waves of velocity. We go with them, because we will go with the self-taught artist if she will take us. I will ask Vanessa Prager now in her Silver Lake studio. Permission slips have been signed.
In a video interview with Nylon, you said that [the exhibition] Little Dream came from a dream, one in which your paintings were in a forest. Do you want to share a crazy dream you had this week?
It was all really boring. Sometimes I’ll just dream about boring stuff, the stuff that’s happening in my life like “oh, did that guy send me that email?” [laughing] and then I’ll have to look to make sure that didn’t actually happen.
Sometimes I have surreal dreams. Those I enjoy. One time I had this dream -- I remember posting it on Facebook -- something about how I asked my sister to kill me. There was something about milk. Milk was involved. But she had to slit my throat [she sees my astonishment] -- I know it sounds dark but it wasn’t -- and it was so intense and it had to be done and it had to be her. And I wanted it to be done. This was a choice. I remember finally that it happened. I remember feeling it -- not that I was dead, but that it was happening.
That one tripped me out. But I like stuff like that because it does play into my art, like I am weird and I think of weird ideas.
You went to Tokyo recently with your sister. What kind of things were you looking forward to in Japan?
I was looking forward to the culture shock of it. It’s like another planet over there. It’s got so many different aspects that are completely the same but are completely different at the same time.
Is there a specific behavior of the Japanese people that struck you as odd?
Yeah, they’re so “Don’t say anything. Don’t put yourself out there.” Then you get to know them for one day and you realize it’s not that. They’ll be totally extremely the opposite -- super fucking crazy out there -- but at the same time, they won’t walk in front of you. You know what I mean [laughing]?
That is completely different from the way that I am -- I know that -- and most people even. It’s funny. And then there’s also the language barrier, so you’re like “how would it be if I could actually understand you completely?”
I read once that you said travel is something you have to do often, preferably every three months for inspiration. Is anything from this Japan trip manifesting in your artwork?
I wouldn’t even say that it’s for inspiration, because it’s not that direct, but it’s more that for one, L.A. is an insane city to live in and you have to know that going into it, and I’ve grown up here -- I’ve figured it out. You can get sucked in so easily and by that I mean it’s got its own beat to it. It’s not necessarily one that I like.
I love the weather. I love the laidback-ness of it. I love things about it, but you can get really sucked into the materialistic drama of L.A. -- and even if you don’t go to clubs [laughing]. You don’t have to do anything. It just is the underlying current here and that’s why I consider travel necessary. And that’s what travel is -- open your eyes. All of sudden you can see things differently, and not just problems either, but life and the way people deal with things.
So expand on this idea of the exhibition. You said it just came to you -- the idea of drawing on sheet music.
I thought originally I was going to collaborate with Ali [Helnwein] and put his music on the sheets and then draw on them. I think that was final concept. We talked about that before I went to Tokyo and then I came back and he went out of town. He was gone. We were still going to do it. And I was like, “I want to start these drawings” and it got too late to actually do [the concept].
And then I preferred [the sheet music] blank. That’s what I had been doing. The way that we brought it together in the end [with his accompaniment] was good. I think that impact was still here, like the music and the drawing.
How would you describe how they complement each other -- the drawings and the music?
I feel like you can be more magical about it all, you know, when you’re doubly hit by art, you can’t help but get lost in the fun of it and feel something.
Generally what draws you to Ali’s music?
I love his string quartet stuff. I have it on my iPod and I think it’s great. It’s soothing because it’s classical, but it’s got some kind of peppy bit that I’m into. I like that. It’s got a modern twist to it, so it’s more relatable to me.
I noticed in these drawings that some characters don’t have their eyes drawn. I haven’t seen this in your work before. Was this a choice before you began drawing them or did it happen during it, like “let’s not put the eyes in here”?
Both. I’ve always been drawn to missing features like that, but I don’t always do it, because something about my art is that I think crazier thoughts than I actually put out there, because my whole point as a painter is to make it relatable to people. If it’s too jarring, it’s not what I want. I like it to be beautiful. Sometimes I can get away with stuff and sometimes I can’t. It was easier to get away with losing eyes in a drawing than in a painting, because in something like that you would notice it a lot more -- just in the nature of a painting.
Radiohead is one band that you follow. Their debut album, Pablo Honey, used musical instruments in expected ways. Fifteen years later, Radiohead released In Rainbows, a successful marriage between alternative rock instrumentation and atmospheric sound engineering. Now, as you examine your own artistic development, what do you think you’re getting better at and if you were to compare this upcoming exhibition to a Radiohead album, which one would it be?
Jeez, I don’t know. That’s hard to say. For one, I didn’t know Radiohead’s work until two years ago when I became friends with Nigel [Godrich, recording engineer and producer for Radiohead] and he’s one of my best friends now. I was living in London at the time. I ended up seeing them live for the first time and I was blown away. I was in love with everything about them and the energy they brought to the table -- it was just awesome. I ended up seeing them probably ten times that summer.
I do know them personally now and the way that they deal with fame and who they hold close to them, how they’ve become who they’ve become while keeping their musical integrity, it’s really interesting. It’s inspiring to say the least. Knowing people in power who are successful who are also good people -- like you’re actually friends with them -- that’s invaluable information for somebody who’s trying to do the same. I love In Rainbows and I’d love to say that [Love You Too] could be compared to that but I can’t [laughing].
I looked at the Hunting and Gaming series, which made me smile the whole way through. I saw a lot of animal props and women, sometimes close to biting some of them, sometimes hugging them. Some of the props like the little giraffe remind me of some of the props in Mercedes Helnwein’s drawings. How would you say your props operate differently in that series than how she uses props?
It’s interesting that you say that because I didn’t think about it at that time. I prefer not to use props actually. It worked for that series, mainly because at the time I remember thinking I wanted dramatic lighting and props are an easy way to cast shadows [laughing]. That was the main thing. At the same time, I remember being hesitant to use props because they do hold such meaning, just because they’re objects and I prefer to use things that are more elusive.
And the way [Mercedes] uses them they’re incorporated into her drawings. They mean something completely different. I feel like mine were literally used to cast shadows. From there, I moved to the next series and used televisions. I was more into that, because you couldn’t necessarily tell they were televisions. Anything that brings light or takes light away -- I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing.
How is each process satisfying in its own way -- drawing and painting?
Drawings are awesome and I think every painter should keep drawing, because it’s much closer from the thought to the “done.” I get a million thoughts throughout the day, like any given day. Most of them are trash. Some of them could be good, if I worked on them. There are so many different ways that a thought could go. The drawings, they come to fruition much faster and easier, so I can mess around with ideas I’ve had or just ideas in general and tweak them. It’s all really easy.
With a painting, it’s the same but a much longer process. It’s an investment. The materials cost a lot of money -- and I don’t think about any of that but I definitely have the mental note of “Do I really like the idea? Will I like this in a week when I’m still painting it?”
The drawing, “Butt” -- how did you go about conceiving that? Were you looking for the perfect butt?
No [laughing], not at all. I didn’t even think about that, before I drew it. That was one of those -- I do silly drawings, most of the time actually. That’s kind of what the drawing side of it is for me -- doing whatever. So that was just a funny picture based on a funny picture I had. I think it’s my sister’s butt [laughing]. She has an amazing butt [laughing].
You cited your sister, Alex, as one of your artistic influences. What have you learned from her? Does she give you feedback on your work?
We’re both artists and we’re both really independent at the same time and we’re best friends, so our relationship -- it’s insane -- and I only say insane because I’m so lucky to have her. Our duo-ness is awesome, I think. I don’t know how I’d be without her -- I really don’t. She and I bounce ideas off each other all the time.
When she started doing well after [the art exhibition] Polyester, I sort of separated from her, like I didn’t want to show [art] with her and I didn’t want to show her my art too much, not because of anything except that I wanted to do this on my own. And I wanted it to be mine. I didn’t want to be too influenced. Artists around you, of course, influence you.
People started comparing us. Of course, we have similar aesthetics because we’re sisters, but I didn’t want to be overshadowed and overlapped and I didn’t want any of my success to be from her. That was rough to figure that out for a little bit, because we’re so close, but I was also trying to be my own person. We’ve definitely come through that. I feel that my art is over here and hers is over there.
And it’s been great and we’re so supportive of each other, you know. Anytime I have a painting and I want feedback on it, she’s the girl. I’ll say, “What do you think?” And she’ll tell me. And I’ll take it or leave it, like anything.
Have you learned things from observing Alex’s career that you’ve applied in your own?
Definitely. I learned how to do independent shows just from watching her do independent shows. Back in the day, I helped her do them. We would stay up until 4 a.m. writing out labels. It was fun. And we’d wait for her check to come in from a magazine so we could go get cookies. It was like a long internship almost. At the same time, I didn’t want to do [my own career] exactly the same way. It’s a different medium. I’m a different person. It’s a different time.
You know something fun your sister told me last time was she would love to have Steve Martin randomly show up at her exhibition and surprise her. Can you think of someone you’d like to have randomly show up at one of your exhibitions? A celebrity you’ve always wanted to know or meet?
No, I cannot, just off the top of my head. Nobody comes to mind, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t somebody like that for me. But I do get a huge kick out of the just normal -- just anybody -- it could be anybody coming in and actually enjoying the show. I’ve had both kinds [of people] and really the only thing that matters is whether or not someone is blown away and if they get something from it.
So you’ve done many one-night-exhibitions now and in what ways are they better than month-long exhibitions?
Well, I don’t show in galleries -- the one-night-ones. Actually, I don’t think they’ve ever been in galleries. I really enjoy putting on my independent shows because it’s a way to bypass the gallery scene and it’s not that I think that scene is bad. It’s just never been something I’ve been a part of. And I’m not one to wait around for someone to ask me to do something.
My sister, of course, inspired that. She started doing that. It’s not that I prefer them to be one night. It’s just the nature of that game, you know, like I’ll find a space and somehow I’m able to use it. That’s that. And also, it’s kind of what I do now and I think people know that they have to catch the show that night, but sometimes I leave them up for a month, like this upcoming one. That one will stay up, if people miss it.
After exhibiting work since 2003, what have you learned about the art business and what have you learned about being a better businessperson?
I learned, for one, you can’t wait around for anyone to give you anything, and you can’t wait for someone else to show your work. I show in a million group shows all the time. For a while, I was like, “why doesn’t any gallery want to showcase me?” And then I realized I didn’t even want that, because you can get into a gallery and get shown and still, you might not get anywhere. You have to put your back into it.
I don’t want painting to be a side career of mine. After realizing that, I have always sold to my own collectors. That was where it was at. From my first show, I sold work to ten of my friends who gave me down payments and this is what I liked about painting -- selling stuff to people who really want this stuff and really enjoy it enough to pay me a hundred dollars a month [for a payment plan] and that’s where I put all my attention then. And I’m not trying to milk all my friends. I just realized I’m my own art gallery to my own collectors and it’s great.
And I know eventually I’ll get into the art world the way that I want to and I’ll get into an ideal gallery, but until then, I love these independent shows. I love the people who want it. I like that I can sell my stuff for cheaper, because there’s nobody taking fifty percent.
The artist Edward Hopper said, “Maybe I’m not very human -- what I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.” What would you like to say about your purpose as an artist?
Just to bring beauty and a little bit of enlightenment to people. I feel that art is the basis of a culture. I would love to be a part of that. I see people’s reactions when they actually enjoy art. It feels amazing. I just paint the way I paint and it’s great that people react to that. I like people and I like interacting with people and that’s pretty much the point of this.
I met you and your sister at the WeSC store last October. I got both of your autographs --
Oh yeah [laughing].
-- in the WeSC catalog, because I said you would be famous. Well, it’s June now. Was I right? Do you feel famous?
Hmmm. Famous? No. What’s famous really? I mean people recognize my artwork and recognize me sometimes so on that count, a little. But it’s definitely not like “Whoa, I’m famous!” at all.
Tomorrow, catch part two of Love You Too as Tommy Tung tells you all about Ali Helnwein, the Sonic Youth of underground classical music. Last year, Tommy interviewed Vanessa’s sister, Alex Prager, here and detailed the making of it here.
----- the artist -----
Vanessa Prager is an artist who paints, draws, and designs sets. She is a WeActivist with WeSC (We Are the Superlative Conspiracy), a fashion company. She lives in Silver Lake, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA. Love Vanessa Prager too at www.vprager.com
----- the writer -----
Tommy Tung lives in Los Angeles and holds a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley and an M.F.A. in Screenwriting from USC. He writes fiction mostly and rock music. When he isn’t supporting the arts, he is promoting his own -- Taurus Ikkanda, an unpublished novel. Choose your words carefully and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org