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Yeah, I miss parties, but not the desperate Yuletide summoned by Alex Prager in Farewell, Work Holiday Parties (2020–21), a recent installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Arrayed outdoors under a canopy of red I-beams, Prager’s piece comprised around a dozen lifelike mannequins in the stereotypical postures of an office Christmas bash, rocking around a plastic tree. Wrapped in stanchions and watched by a guard, the work appeared toward the end of the 2020 plague year as if, in the etiolation of lockdown—as families spent the holidays apart—any touch is good touch, any art good art.
But this was not the show we needed. Prager’s waxen grotesques are bad enough on their own terms: anachronistic, largely white-presenting, almost violently un-PC, with Christian overtones and #MeToo melodies. One employee gingerly consoles another, who sobs over her iMessages. A veteran manager’s chest hairs wriggle through his undone shirt. A prankster runs photocopies of his ass while co-workers avert their glassy eyes—fish-in-the-watercooler, goosing-the-secretary, singing-into-the-mop good times. Do people really act this way? Did they, once upon a time? To quote another century’s scrivener, I’d prefer not to.
The whole scene would make more sense if you knew what you were meant to ignore: Prager’s sculptures were originally conceived as props for a Miller Lite ad campaign. In the commercial, which first aired in November 2020, the camera drifts across Prager’s tableau, installed in a realistic hell of white sheetrock walls and padded cubicles. The idea behind the campaign is that company parties are a welcome bit of collateral damage among all of Covid’s cancellations—because weren’t they awkward and sexist and, well, cringe? Of course, one can still enjoy the sole saving grace of those haunted shindigs—cold, refreshing Miller Lite—from the comfort of one’s couch. Indeed, even after it was relocated to LACMA and rebranded as sculpture, the scenario seemed designed less by a contemporary artist than by a panel of madmen trying to maximize their spot’s relatability. Miller Lite’s website links proudly to the LACMA exhibition but, perhaps embarrassed by their bedfellows, LACMA does not return the favor. The wall texts at the museum omitted the project’s origins at ad firm DDB North America, limply nodding to Miller Lite’s “support” instead.
At LACMA, stripped of its commercial context, Prager’s Farewell aspired to the political. Its heavy vibe of creepy uncle came with the pretense of shedding bad history (another reason why not one longneck or can of Miller participates in the corruption). It did the opposite instead, showcasing a capsule world where binge drinking and unwanted touching are the seasonal relief of the white-collar slog. Less like Kienholz’s Five Car Stud (1969–72) and more like an inadvertently racist museum display or, say, a domestic Pilsner, Farewell forewent impact, nuance, and difficulty in favor of palatable clichés. Fittingly, Prager’s figures shared LACMA’s plaza with L.A.’s premier selfie station, Chris Burden’s Urban Light (2008); both works seem destined for the lens. In Farewell’s diorama, the intemperate plastic arms of a boss pull two subordinates close for a photo. The visiting public could hardly help adding their Instas to the mix, burping a shameful professional culture into the future while multiplying Molson Coors’ advertising dollar in the process.
Full transparency in LACMA’s promotion of Prager’s sculptures would not have made this an insightful, unproblematic artwork, however. It would have flagged Farewell as not an artwork at all, but a beer ad, which we could have duly avoided. Or not: perhaps professing their love of Miller Lite would have made LACMA more approachable to the “common man”. At the very least, museums should aspire to air out the sourness of their sponsored content: newspapers (and art magazines) staggering through the digital dawn have found this much integrity. By hush-hushing the true nature of Prager’s sculptures, LACMA seemed to play the role of a CEO out of their depth, managing competing interests with a reluctance that looked a lot like guilt.
Travis Diehl has lived in Los Angeles since 2009. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (2013) and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism (2018).
This review was originally published in Carla issue 24.