Vanessa Prager may not be the first self-taught artist in her family to gain attention for her works—sister Alex has already established herself as a photographer to watch, most recently with a short film featuring Lara Stone for Mercedes-Benz—but her pieces certainly stand on their own. Alternating between simple ballpoint pen drawings and color-drenched oil paintings, the Los Angeles-based artist creates vivid-yet-haunting portraits that leave just enough up to the imagination. That’s how Prager likes it: “I never wanted to make anything that needed dialogue to accompany it in order for someone to understand or enjoy it,” she explains. Viewers can fill in the blanks at her latest solo show, The Moon Is Down, which opens today at San Francisco’s Jenkins Johnson Gallery, but to help, ELLE.com spoke with Prager for further enlightenment on her enigmatic pieces.
ELLE: You’ve been exhibiting your works since 2007. How has your art evolved over the past few years?
Vanessa Prager: That’s probably best for another to judge. But I can say the first few years I was making work as I was teaching myself how to paint [and] draw. I think as an artist you are endlessly learning, but I have now certainly hit a level technically where I’m able to focus more on what I want to make, as opposed to how I’m going to make it. My work is probably a little looser and much closer to what I imagine. I’m always trying to improve on being able to say more with less fluff. I’ve been working on this show for the past few months, though I feel many of these pieces were a long time coming; for years I wanted to do a series of more classically inspired portraits and scenes but executed in a modern way. That is the general concept behind The Moon Is Down.
ELLE: Women are featured prominently in your work—what is it about the female form that fascinates you as an artist?
VP: Women have a certain quality to them that I feel leaves the mood pretty open for interpretation. If you just clip one scene, they could seem naive, conniving, enlightened, any combination of the above or otherwise. I also enjoy painting men and know men can too possess all these qualities, but the images with women more readily seem to hold multiple layers of emotion. That’s pretty valuable when working in still imagery.
ELLE: When you start on a piece, do you make a conscious decision about whether it will be done with oil paint or a ballpoint pen, or does it just happen organically?
VP: I usually set out to work in one medium or the other, though sometimes I will do a drawing and turn it into a painting as well. One of the best things I think I ever did was start to draw complete pictures with ballpoint pen, as there is no erasing and it forced me to make the best of what I had every step of the way. Naturally I would never put out a product I thought was sub-par, so I trained myself to continually alter whatever was in front of me to get the desired end. This absolutely helped me do the same in oil painting, although the terms are a bit different.
ELLE: Many of your drawings are done on music composition paper—are you passionate about music?
VP: I am big into music, I love it so. Since I work in the visual arts and therefore am inclined to view it with a critical eye, music—which I know nothing about creatively—I’ve always been able to simply enjoy and admire. Some bands that have had a big influence on me are Beck, Wilco, Fiona Apple, Morrissey, The Pixies, The Strokes… there’s more I’m surely forgetting.
ELLE: There’s also a certain cinematic quality to your pieces. Is that just Los Angeles rubbing off on you?
VP: I am really in love with L.A. It has so much to it, so many parts and subcultures. The city is insanely beautiful yet comes with its dark, apocalyptic side, too. It actually is not quite how it appears. I definitely think that’s a recurring theme and utilize that concept in my work. If I lived in another city I’d surely make art that looked different, but I have no idea what it would be!
ELLE: What advice have you gotten from you sister Alex?
VP: To just keep going! Eventually I’d make things work, in my own way, and in my own style. And yes, I follow and consider that advice invaluable.