While Vanessa Prager's resume says "No formal education," for the 26-year-old painter, illustrator, and younger sister of photographer Alex Prager, artistic blood clearly runs in the family. Vanessa started painting at 19, had her first show in 2003 and has been wooing the art world with her unique works ever since, even garnering a recent commission from Shepard Fairey. "...It's exciting to see how she has developed her own unique voice," says Alex. "Her pictures now are super psychedelic. They feel like the 1940s mixed with Blade Runner and Mad Max."
Vanessa's paintings and Bic ballpoint pen drawings will be on display together for the first time for one night only at the ADBD gallery in Los Angeles on June 2. So, on the heels of her show, the sisters (who live together in Silverlake with their dog, Jake) sat down to talk building forts as kids, first paintings, sisterly collaboration and eating vegan:
Vanessa Prager's Smoke, 2011, oil on linen
Alex: Okay, when did you start painting and why?
Vanessa: When I was 19. Seriously, sometimes I can't even believe all the years I spent without! Remember I was really bad at drawing when I was younger?
A: I wouldn't say really bad!
V: Yeah it was bad, really stiff and I was trying so hard to get it right but it just wasn't. I used to sit next to mom while she drew faces and I couldn't for the life of me figure it out. Not until I was 16 did I even start to draw with any skill.
A: Well, we used to act when we were kids--it paid our way through some of our private schooling.
V: Yeah, but I wouldn't say those commercials I did took an artist's touch. My talents more lied in building forts, drawing with that neon puffy glue on t-shirts and using that crazy device that let you draw tons of ellipses in a big circle over and over again. We built the best forts in history out of that brown couch by the way.
A: Yeah, that was fun. Well, what was the first painting you ever made?
V: I did my first painting when we lived in that apartment on Beachwood. Technically I was okay. I got caught at his hands, it just kind of fades out there.
A: Why did you start painting?
V: Mainly because I wanted to work bigger and use more color than my pencils would allow. After using straight graphite for a while I tried colored pencil and oil pastels, but it wasn't good enough. Someone suggested oils, I think it was you!
Paintings by Vanessa Prager
A: Alright, tell me something I wouldn't expect that has inspired your art.
V: You must suspect... but electronics from anytime before the 90's, especially ones that emit light. Old televisions especially, and things like clock radios, computers, toasters. They have this weird deadened kind of life about them, as if they have numbed personalities, you know?
V: Not really. There were passing thoughts of being a writer when I was younger, but it never formed up.
A: You're a good writer!
V: Thanks. And I will probably write someday too. All I did know was that I wouldn't have a regular day job...that was never going to happen. So I spent my teen years figuring out how to make this work, and luckily stumbled on painting before I hit my twenties!
A: That is lucky.
V: Yeah, and you doing something similar a little before me inspired me too. And you were always so supportive. That was awesome. I remember whenever I would show you a drawing and later with paintings, you'd get things like goose bumps, get really into it, really passionate. You don't find that just anywhere these days! And mom and dad definitely raised us with the right attitude to becoming artists. I think this was something instilled in our blood, believing that we could do anything, be anything, and have anything if we really wanted it.
A: I really believed that!
V: Me too! It wasn't until I was older that I realized that people mostly didn't end up doing what they liked!
A: So would you ever consider art direction again on one of my films or was I too much of a diva for you on Despair?
V: I loved art directing on Despair! It's interesting working with someone like you who has such a specific vision. I'm used to being that guy and I'm used to working alone. I think it helped that I'm so familiar with your aesthetic because there really wasn't much time to mess around. Oh, and I totally forgot that we'd just flown back from Tokyo like a day or so before shooting started, and we were so tired and jetlagged!
A: Oh yeah! That was crazy!
V: But everything had to get done. I was out there painting the massive 9-foot signs not even knowing what time zone I was in. But it was all really fun. Like when the wind blew the lid off the set of New York Street, but you just stay cool and figured it out. I especially enjoy that hands-on, all-in aspect of working like that, with large sets, massive objects, moving and making things. It's the total opposite of painting, where I'm taking entire worlds and making them into tiny little brushstrokes. It's sometimes nice working in the real world.
A: Yeah it's definitely different working with film! It was really great having you on set too, feels like home. And how does modern technology play a part in classic oil painting? Or does it?
V: Definitely! I'm kind of obsessed with the technological aspects of our culture, and I enjoy incorporating it into such a classical medium. I like to see the two collide.
A: Okay I always want to ask you this. Do you think photographers, such as myself, have it easier as artists?
V: You would! Sure you could probably take more pictures faster than I could paint them, but there is a whole other element that doesn't include time or any other technical factors, you know? The chosen medium is really just a side note. It's like comparing whether it's easier to speak Chinese or English. If that's your language you just learn it and do it, like anything.
Painting by Vanessa Prager
A: What's the most frustrating thing about being a painter?
V: Cleaning my paintbrushes! Sometimes while I'm doing it I wonder if it would just be better to buy new brushes every time--the answer is always no. But man is that boring.
A: So let's get real. What is my most annoying trait?
V: Ha! I used to think it was how you'd play a song over and over again when you discovered how much you loved it, until you beat it to death and nobody could ever listen to it again.... But now I just think that's endearing and I love how passionate you get over some little thing.
A: Ahah! I knew you liked that!
A: We're mostly vegan...I just wanted to say that.
V: True. It's just easier. Better. Since we live together and you've always been vegetarian, and I was getting over the meat thing anyway with the thought of hormones and wondering what the animals ate in the first place. I don't think either of us like putting rules on what we will or won't eat, but the organic, close to the earth, vegetable and grain thing seems to work out pretty well in the Prager house. Especially since you started cooking more. I feel better, don't you?
A: What's the longest you've ever stayed in the studio straight?
V: I'm not sure, I've always limited it to one day's time. But I'm pretty regularly in there all day and night, maybe up to 18 hours before a show. But I'm not one of those artists who sleeps in their studio and has old food hidden behind some canvas. It's nice that my studio is attached to our house because it's close enough for me to go whenever I please.
A: Do you work more on a schedule or just when you feel inspired?
V: When I'm inspired. Though when I'm on a deadline, I schedule in ways to get inspired if I'm not already. So a bit of the former...
A: I do that too sometimes...
V: I know. Sometimes we'll both agree that we're thoroughly uninspired and just need to step away from work for the afternoon. Other times I'll try to push through. Sometimes listening to good music will work or looking through old art books. But often the best inspiration for me is going and doing something totally non art related, you know, just living. By the end of a day without painting or making something I'm usually full of ideas and can't wait to get back.
A: What's your favorite thing that we do together?
V: I'm not going to be cheesy but... movie night! With Jake, popcorn and maybe some Micheles cookies.
See Alex Prager's work in W's 2010 Art Issue
And watch Alex Prager's "Sunday" for W
Polaroid: Quam Odunsi. All artworks ıı 2010 Vanessa Prager