It's Funny You Mention It: Maya Rudolph and Vanessa Prager Talk Painting

Vanessa Prager. Photo by Jeff Vespa/@portraits
Vanessa Prager. Photo by Jeff Vespa/@portraits

Actor and comedian Maya Rudolph and Vanessa Prager first met on a blind date. Prager had been commissioned to paint a portrait of Rudolph, and the sitting blossomed into something more robust: an ongoing dialogue about family, film, art and Los Angeles. Here, Rudolph delves into Prager’s latest body of work, debuting this month in her show “Static” at Diane Rosenstein Gallery.

Maya Rudolph: I feel like it's a prerequisite to ask you how your 2020 was. How did you spend yours?

Vanessa Prager: I don’t think I would have ever expected half of what occurred. For me, there was just a huge sense of loss knowing that the world was changing right before my eyes faster than it ever had before. I became introspective, but it took weird paths. I spent time wondering what different people were going through and how they were spending their days. I spent mine primarily with family and I was able to create a body of work that I’m super happy about. There was a lot of sadness this year, but finding little joys in the small things was the really interesting part—whether resuming cooking or talking with friends.

MR: Finding little joys is such a great way to say what I was feeling too. I’m so curious because your work is so specific. Are you someone who has a daily routine and if so, did the shift of the pandemic radically change your practice?

VP: I am—I take my work seriously. Probably around 10 years ago, I decided that it was a job that I, even if I didn’t feel super inspired, needed to attend to. There’s a certain amount of just showing up that I feel responsible for, even if I’m not enlightened that day. At the beginning of all of this, it didn’t feel like there was a point to making anything. I know that sounds dark, but I really thought half of my friends were going to die for a period of time. You know what I mean? There was a sense of apocalypse.

Eventually I pushed myself back into it and found a rhythm. I didn’t go to the studio every day last year and I was fine with that. Finding what was important to me was a huge part of this year. I consider that part of my job and I got more value out of that than almost any other chunk of my life.

Vanessa Prager's studio. Photo by Jeff Vespa/@portraits

MR: How did you normally find inspiration before quarantine?

VP: My sources have traditionally stayed the same—collecting input from other artists, entertainment, the world—but I’ve always been attracted to timeless things. I’m interested in the things that can travel through eras. I often would look at old Hollywood. Early movies interest me. They would capture so much emotion in just one picture.

MR: I can really relate to that because I always thought about growing up in Los Angeles as growing up in an industry town. It wasn’t necessarily what your parents did or didn’t do for a living. It was more like, we all live in the town where people work for the big oil well, and this just happens to be the oil well. It colors everything about living here, but at the same time, it’s a bit of a backdrop.

It’s the same in your work. It almost feels woven in. I’ve always been able to quietly relate to that in your work—an unspoken, shared language. I’m so curious about you growing up here and the fact that you’re not the only artist in your family. Were you taught to love film as a kid or was it a part of normal life?

VP: It’s what you were saying—just growing up in the city, it’s everywhere and you can’t help but be permeated by it. I feel like it was my school. Everyone acted. They weren’t all trying to be stars, but it was just part of life. I grew up learning how to think in pictures. Hollywood was such a part of growing up in Los Angeles. I didn’t find out until I was maybe 20 that not everyone grew up like that. On the flip, LA wasn’t taken very seriously for a long time, which is funny because I think so many people now recognize it as a great city.

MR: I’m just curious if you have any favorite entertainers, or is there an era that inspires you in that way? Obviously, it’s not just film that goes into your work.

VP: There’s been so many. My grandma and me would watch like Monty Python, Ace Ventura (1994), Young Frankenstein (1974). I think the forties and fifties had a lot of really great imagery and just pure raw emotion that I would go back to. I loved Apocalypse Now (1979) and Chinatown (1974), Casablanca (1942), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). When I was working this last year, I started turning away from current culture because it was so overwhelming. I began turning back into poetry and history trying to make the timeline of all of this just so much broader.

The running theme that I had in my head while making this series was rebirth. Which comes with destruction and a lot of loss. I really feel like that’s what is happening all the time, but especially now. I called the show “Static” because we’re still waiting to emerge again and to see what’s now, what’s here, what’s left, what’s remaining.

MR: Even just watching the inauguration in January, I had a physical experience. I heard music that I hadn’t felt in so long. What I’m trying to say is, I was aware that the last four years have put a lot of stress on my body, I think it’s going to take a long time for all of us to realize that some of the things are being put back in place. We’re being reminded that things can actually feel good. It’s a strange experience. It’s similar to what you’re talking about, that idea of rebirth.

There’s definitely one thing that I have to ask so that I don’t forget, which is really about your work and your technique and a word that I learned because of you: impasto.

Vanessa Prager's studio. Photo by Jeff Vespa/@portraits

VP: Well I’m self-taught. I think learning is copying in the beginning and loving something and trying to do something also that you love. It turned into reworking paintings I made that weren’t right, trying to push through and really put what I thought and felt into them. Over time, what developed was just adding on to these paintings and putting more and more paint.

I’ve always liked things melting and dripping, especially in portraiture. It felt more like life to me and what my life is. There are mistakes here and there, and I would not try and cover them up, but just work with them. It went with my personality to try and make something really beautiful out of what might be considered just a mess to somebody else. I really liked the concept of layers because when you see the piece from different angles, it’s got different things going on—because that’s how I feel.

Things aren’t the same every day and I’m not always happy. It varies. That’s the style that I ended up at. They’ve got pits in them, and there’s height to it. This series, specifically, is really pokey and spiky. I wanted to simulate a blanket and maybe have it wrap around you and give you a little hug from afar.

MR: I didn’t know that you were self-taught. When did you start painting?

VP: I was about 20 when I went down to the art store and I just picked up a little start-painting kit. I always had a thing for oil paint. It just spoke to me.

MR: The first time we met was when you painted me for the cover of The New York Times Magazine and I got to go to your studio. I had never been physically in the same room with your work before and I was overjoyed, especially because of the scale. My first thoughts were that they looked almost like a cake. This thickness is so intriguing and now that I know the process, the worrier in me is like, “How long does that take to dry?”

VP: It’s always the number-one question.

MR: I’m lucky enough to have a piece of yours. I always wonder, “Am I allowed to ask the artist if they meant for me to feel this way?” I know the answer even as I’m asking it: “Whatever you want.”

And I’m not trying to impose meaning here but how do you feel about painting as practice? Can it be a healing ritual?

VP: Last year was so nutty for me. I couldn’t process it. It was the first reason I had to get back in the studio. When I’m painting, I don’t think about anything. I don’t even know what people do without that. It helped me to put everything in its place but it didn’t help me make sense of everything. I don’t have any answers. Paintings just start conversations. One painting would be like us sitting together for six hours one night and going back and forth.

MR: I think it’s interesting also to hear you say that when you’re painting you’re not thinking about things. Is that, for you, the idea of a flow state? Are there things that you do to get there?

VP: Yes. It doesn’t even take that much. I think that the physicality of the paint takes over. My body will just do the motions. Your body is a weird little machine. If I just start painting, eventually it gets there, but the good stuff doesn’t necessarily have to happen right away and that’s okay too.

MR: Sometimes it’s really just about showing up for yourself.