Painter Vanessa Prager Talks Beauty And Makeup, And Art Too

The artist likens her maximalist oil paintings to women's cosmetics.

Makeup both accentuates the real, obscures the imperfect, and actualizes the artificial. A little blush can highlight the cheekbone while some concealer can brighten up those dark eye circles. Mascara, when clumped on layer after layer, becomes something almost inhuman; lacquered eyelashes appear like a spider dipped in tar.

Painter Vanessa Prager likens her maximalist oil paintings to women's cosmetics. They paint a picture that's not quite real and not quite fake, a carefully constructed combination of fact and handy contouring. Prager's densely layered paintings, with pigment applied so thickly it forms its own topography, contain too much visual information to digest right away.

The various strokes of color -- a ribbon of white like a squirt of toothpaste, a sharp sliver of green like a fish darting by -- come together to form different visual narratives. No two viewers encounter the same portrait the same way, just as no two people encounter the same person the same way. 

Prager's current exhibition at The Hole NYC is titled "Voyeur," referencing both a person who likes making the private public, and a person who gets sexual pleasure from secretly watching others.

In a conversation with The Huffington Post, Prager discussed the excitement of looking where one should not in relation to social media. "Information about people is everywhere," Prager said. "You meet someone and you find out about them before you even want to."

As any social media user or online dater knows all too well, what you find out about people is often not true. "People add their own information into things; they’ll make up their own stories of people or things or how great they can be and how perfect it all is. Things can be any which way depending on what you add to them."

Like, for example, a favorite book you've never actually read. Or a second layer of mascara to really plump them up. 

"I'm playing with idea of the voyeur as this Peeping Tom," Prager continued, "getting pleasure out of things that are not necessarily real, but also not not real. It's based on your own experience, on what you’re imagining it to be. There is a salaciousness to it, a danger in creating the whole thing before it’s actually real."

In the studio, Prager works on a bunch of paintings at once, throwing down paint almost at random until a face or figure starts to emerge. "I don’t like a nice perfect face," she said. Using knives, toothbrushes, and occasionally her hands, Prager adds layers of paint, piling on a chaotic array of colors until the canvas is wet with peaks and valleys, every errant stroke only an impetus for more and more pigment. 

"Anytime I make a 'mistake' painting, I add to it," Prager said. "I never take it away. Maximalism -- more, more, more. It's all there underneath. The paintings are living breathing creatures to me. They evolve. Sometimes somebody will accidentally touch a piece and it’s totally okay."

Eventually, the paintings' chaos subsides and features emerge from the multicolored swamps to form likenesses. Prager's creations creep out from the material itself; there is never a source image. But they are fabrications of paint, as heavily premeditated as a self-aware online persona.

The results beg to be felt, like a pelt of colorful sludge, too. "The furriness makes them these cozy, lush things that you can fall into," Prager added. "Touch them, eat them. You want to be in them -- or, at least that’s the intention."

The "Voyeur" portraits, lined up like a string of People You May Know, explore the relationship between the palatable surface and the ugly buildup underneath, and the way both come together to form something complicated, beautiful.

In the Hole's exhibit, Prager toys with just how much we're allowed to see of each work and just how much we want to see. Some paintings are hung so the viewer is closed in a confined space while confronting the work. Another can only be accessed through a peephole. Despite our desire to see more and more, Prager only allows entry to the very surface.

"The ways that people deal with imperfection is really interesting to me. There is a comfortability that comes with exposing yourself and being okay," she concluded. "Makeup is a perfect example -- it can cover things up or accentuate who you are. What you see on top isn’t necessarily what’s below. What you see on the surface or a certain angle isn’t necessarily the whole thing."

"Voyeur" runs until February 29, 2016 at The Hole NYC. 

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Allison Schulnik