Written by Therese Möllenhoff
Alex Israel & Bret Easton Ellis, "Fourth Tequila" (2016). PHoto: Joshua White
Alex Israel & Bret Easton Ellis, Modern Erotiscm, 2016. Photo: Joshua White
Alex Israel & Bret Easton Ellis
Alex Israel’s newest series of works was created in collaboration with the American author Bret Easton Ellis, and comprises paintings based on texts and photographs. These works were first exhibited from February to April 2016 at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles during the so-called Oscar season. The two works that are included as part of the exhibition #AlexIsrael are the most recent from the series. Bret Easton Ellis, who has written books such as American Psycho and Glamorama, initially gained fame for his iconic debut novel, Less Than Zero, which addressed the hedonistic youth culture of the 1980s in Los Angeles. Israel had long been absorbed by Ellis’s literature which, like his own art, addresses a Los Angeles-based existence. Ellis was also the subject of one episode of Israel’s notorious talk show As It Lays, where he interviews people whom he regards as having played a role in shaping the cultural history of Los Angeles.
Although Israel and Ellis can both be regarded as drawing portraits of Los Angeles, their views of the city diverge considerably. While Ellis’s universe is darker, and is inhabited by hedonistic and destructive characters, Israel’s version of the city is lighter, conjuring up a more positive and dreamlike image of the city. Through their common fascination with their home city and its mythical soul, a friendship developed between the two, and Israel introduced the idea of creating a series of artworks based on texts produced by Ellis combined with images of Los Angeles. The collaboration began when Ellis created a collection of texts consisting of one to two sentences each. As a point of departure for the texts he used fragments of his literary universe, and they evoke atmospheres, emotions, thoughts and actions from the types of characters he usually writes about. When Ellis had produced several hundred lines of text that could be perceived as fragments of a unified narrative, Israel began transforming the texts into a variety of fonts from local graphical sources, and combining these with image motifs. The image material has been appropriated from stock photos that Israel purchased from the provider iStock. This category of picture is a type of generalised photography that often depicts stereotypical versions of places or objects, and that can be bought and licensed for various uses. The use of this standardised "postcard version" of the city these images portray enhances the superficial illusion that Israel and Ellis are trying to delve under the surface of, each in his own way.
The world that Israel usually depicts is the bright version of LA, the dream of LA – the one that all new arrivals bring with them. The city is presented in terms of clichés, without touching on the spectrum of social or individual circumstances that exist against this dreamlike backdrop. In the Israel/Ellis collaboration a disruption in the surface is immediately evident. A narrative – a voice speaking in either the first or the third person – is introduced with the text, and through the visual juxtaposition of the images with the texts the shiny surface becomes the scene of ambiguous statements, emotions or events. Over pictures of the beach, the horizon, the starry sky, palm trees or the colourful Los Angeles architecture, texts are superimposed that impart a deeper and darker resonance to the lives and stories that play out in this dream landscape. Another side of the postcard is shown, where success and fame are just as easily followed by darkness and ambivalence as by glitter and glamour. Rather than the dream version of Hollywood, the version of Hollywood is invoked in which everyone actually knows that the waiters, or nowadays probably the Uber drivers, are aspiring or unsuccessful actors. "The Uber driver rolled across an opulent stretch of Melrose hoping to be noticed but worried that he looked as blank as his headshot." The LA in which everyone dreams of becoming famous and of leaving their mark on the culture of the city, whether this applies to the dreams of the aspiring actor – "I am going to be a different kind of star" – or the hopeful disillusionment of the aspiring artist – "He still thought art could change the world, just a little less so now."
Israel and Ellis have described the texts as fragments of stories about people who live a double life, people who are standing with one foot on the way out into the limelight while the other is edging into paranoia. The contrast between the bright surface and the darker reality adds a new dimension to the images. This duality between Israel’s positive and innocent world and Ellis’s cynical and dark one constitutes a point of suspense in these works, which vibrate with an underlying ambiguity. The interaction between clichés and earnestness provokes the same ambiguity as in Israel’s talk show As It Lays, where it is precisely this interplay between the banal and the serious that denotes the relationship between the superficial and the profound. Names are mentioned in the texts that also appear in Ellis’s universe, such as Trent, the unreliable model who is a friend of the protagonist in Less Than Zero (1985), or Tara, who is played by Lindsay Lohan in the much-discussed film whose manuscript was written by Ellis, The Canyons (2013). These two sexually destructive characters seem to encounter each other here in a doomed love story. "Trent looked at Tara again and realized his crush was just an essay on the failure of modern eroticism." In the same way several of the works are perceived as fragments of a larger narrative, where the previous or subsequent action is obscured. Ellis has described how the texts, by suggesting an invisible world, are thus surrounded by questions. Some of the texts are expressed as first-person statements: "As I downed my fourth tequila the sun fused with the horizon and rendered everything the same blazing shade of pink" – descriptions of events and emotions that we, as observers, associate with the likewise hopeful and disillusioned protagonists of the intertext of statements in the other works. Other texts are constructed more as contemporary one-liners, informed by the spirit of the times, such as the large billboard advertising the exhibition that featured the statement "If you don’t like me unfollow me" or the invitation card saying "You can be rich and still be a good person", directed towards the gallery’s exclusive clientele.
By creating paintings that combine text with images, Israel is connecting to a long art historical tradition of text-based works, as represented by a number of California artists. Artists such as John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Raymond Pettibon, Larry Johnson and Ed Ruscha have all worked in a tradition that utilises text and image. The large-scale canvasses are also intended to suggest another of the visual traditions of Los Angeles: billboards. These large, rectangular advertising panels that appear along the motorways of the city have been the objects of artistic exploration for several generations.