Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran
As It Lays (2012) at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York
The work of Alex Israel is a portrait of today’s Los Angeles, "drawn from where the author lives as a young man of thirty who flourishes without guilt in an economic reality, culture and technology of his own time and his city."(1) But it is a portrait once removed, since it is not developed so much from reality as from the reality of the media. Born in the highly developed and sophisticated "dream factory" fabricated by Hollywood, Disney and the entertainment industry, Israel makes works that are not obviously based on his direct experience of the city, and leave us with no sense of LA’s social issues (poverty, racial conflict, inequality), but are meta-stories referring to the sky, the sun, the sea, the beach, the vegetation, the cityscape, clichés more or less appropriated from the images promoted by the media. This is a portrait that confronts the representations and clichés of the city’s history, mixing homage and parody, the codes of the international art world with those of advertising and Hollywood’s factory of quintessential dreams and myths, whose impact extends well beyond LA to the rest of America and around the world.
"[Los Angeles] is part of my DNA", says Israel. "It is where I grew up. I didn’t grow up with a family that was in the movie business, but I grew up in a city that runs on that business".(2) "LA has long held a special place in the collective imagination. Because so many of us have grown up watching television and movies that are filmed in LA, we have an idea of the city that's tied to televisual and cinematic fantasy."(3)
In this portrait of LA, which is physically exhibited in galleries or virtually displayed online, Israel is very much present, both as subject and object, actor and director, product and designer, star and interviewer of stars. He appears in multiple roles inside and outside of his artistic sphere, adopting the benevolent and distanced view of an anthropologist of contemporary society. Through a system of reminders, overlaps and links, his attractive works make subtle connections, vertically with the cultural productions of Los Angeles of the past and present, and horizontally with his own productions.
Israel’s interview series As It Lays, begun in 2012, already had all the ingredients of the works that have emerged from his studio in recent years. A "meta-talk show", it parodies this form of entertainment, but at the same time achieves something else. In a series of interviews, the artist takes on the role of the TV host, asking Hollywood celebrities a number of philosophical and banal questions that, according to Israel, aim not to elicit a conversation, but "to reveal the personalities" of the people invited.(4) Hidden behind sunglasses, which are designed and produced by his own company Freeway Eyewear, he is surrounded by a backdrop and a stage set that he also designed. The logo of the talk show is a profile of the artist, inspired by famous silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock. The sunglasses create a distance between him and his guests, but at the same time contextualise him as belonging amongst these Hollywood stars, who also often use sunglasses as a method of protection, isolation and distanciation, as well as of seduction. In the end, the sunglasses connote The Star.
The saying goes that the "eyes are the mirror of the soul", and here, the artist’s sunglasses block access to his "inner life". In the role of the talk show host, he displays no visible expression or empathy towards his guests, appearing more like an object or a machine in his mechanical manner of questioning. This distantiation recalls Bertolt Brecht’s "alienation effect", and also connects Israel to Andy Warhol and to Pop art in general, as well as to neo-conceptual and appropriation artists like Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall,(5) who were heavily influenced by the poststructuralist theoretical discourses of the 1960s and 70s. As a young artist born in 1982, well aware of the way in which art has developed in the last decades, Israel has assimilated these kinds of references, as well as being highly conscious of the role of the media and the art market. Compared to the older generations of artists mentioned above, he is a conceptual artist of his particular time, creating his own artistic landscape, which includes the use of video, sculpture, and wall paintings made by highly qualified craftsmen at Warner Bros. studios or in specialised firms in different parts of the world. "I want my work to be as close to Hollywood as possible, so it was a very natural decision to have the paintings made in the Scenic Art department at a Hollywood studio", he comments.(6)
There is great coherence within Israel’s artistic project in general. The backdrops from the talk show that depict the Los Angeles sky rapidly became a signature motif that he has used on wetsuits that clad both the human body and sculptures cast from the artist’s body, making strong references to antique sculptures. The multi-coloured self-portraits showing him in profile wearing sunglasses grew out of the talk-show logo, and in turn became a screen or a surface for his projections of LA, which then give birth to the large sculptures of multi-coloured lenses.
In this fictional world the artist is the director and the main actor – everything is seen though his eyes, a view that is distant, structured and calculated. All the films, art objects, social and commercial events and appearances, including the use of social media, tell their own micro story, but make up a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), a world with porous edges where the relationship between fiction and reality is blurred. Seeing all his works together is like stepping into the ‘world of Alex Israel’ or into a 3D film, where everything is overseen, choreographed and directed down to the smallest detail, and where every detail is connected with the rest and has a precise function to perform.
It is perhaps more appropriate, however, to liken this world to theatre than to film, because of the directness of the objects. The sky is represented in a theatrical clichéd way, and the different plants, rendered by the professional painters of Warner Bros. studios, create a clear distance between representation and reality itself. This is an invented and organised fiction where the artist plays with the notion of temporality: different times seem to operate simultaneously in his works, which makes it possible to tell stories within stories. There is the real time that covers the whole project and then different durations implied within each of the elements, acts, ephemeral objects and wall paintings, a notion that relates to the nature of the city and its ongoing cultural amnesia. Nothing seems to be forever in this mobile city, and Israel’s work reflects its peripatetic nature, its ability to live on in films and documentation, in milestones of art history, and in the memory of the viewer.
The media-driven mythology of LA is mixed in Israel’s works with the visual art, films and literature that the city has produced. The trees and plants of LA that appear in his wall paintings are quotes from Ed Ruscha’s artist’s book of local plants A Few Palm Trees (1971). We also recall Larry Bell’s use of glass and reflection, the antique sculptures found at the Getty Museum, the shadow of Joan Didion (who wrote the book Play It as It Lays), and especially novelist Bret Easton Ellis, with whom he has collaborated on his latest large text paintings. This conscious and subtle fusion of ‘city images’, the magical effects of the Hollywood film industry and the artistic transformation of dissimilar artists makes it possible for Israel to come up with his own personal proposals. He creates a new artistic language that plays on the multi-semantic meanings of existing and invented objects, images, words and signs, producing a conversation between himself, the city and art history. There is, however, a constant ambiguity to this use of images and objects as signs. On the one hand he wants to be as neutral as possible. On the other, he is creating his own mythology. That’s how it goes in the great city of contemporary mythologies, Los Angeles.
In this exhibition, entitled #AlexIsrael,(7) the artist tells yet another story of Los Angeles. The beach city is symbolised by his grand-scale sky paintings on the wall, and a monumental pier that extends out into the exhibition space of the main hall, and which sets the stage for other narratives: the series of works based on wetsuits and wetsuit-accessories, painted palm trees, self-portraits, profile paintings of the artist superimposed with images of Los Angeles, the enlarged lenses from his famous sunglasses, the billboard text paintings created together with Easton Ellis, early films like Rough Winds (2010), videos from As It Lays, and a trailer from his film SPF-18 about beach life. The overall effect is like a gigantic 3D postcard from LA, placed in the open space of the museum’s Renzo Piano architecture, which itself carries references to a ship and sails, the sea and the sky, and is situated on the seashore. Once again, Israel creates a metaphorical ambiguity of time and space in the encounter with the Oslo environment, the beach and the windy scenery of Tjuvholmen.
1. Éric Troncy, presentation text for Alex Israel’s exhibition at Consortium, Dijon, France, 4 July – 29 September 2013, originally published in Frog no. 12, May 2013.
2. Alex Israel, AnOther, 30 April, 2013.
3. Alex Israel, Interview Magazine, 1 January 2015.
4. "Making As It Lays, I wanted to make myself invisible – to make sure that the focus of the viewers' attention would be on my subject. This affected many aspects of both my appearance and performance. So yes, there was the suit. It’s actually blue, and not navy blue but a slightly brighter blue: my friend China Chow was on a TV show and she told me that they asked her not to wear black, because it doesn’t translate so well on camera. I chose a blue suit and tie based on her advice, and also based on what I observed on television – what other men wore on TV. The suit was the most classic option – the thing that would attract the least attention to me. I selected a green tie, which matched the green colour of the logo for my eyewear brand: Freeway. As for the distanced position I take, behind sunglasses, with little to no voice inflection, not asking follow-up questions or reacting to the subjects’ answers – this was a position I performed in order, again, to remain invisible. I realised that at first, watching one or two episodes of the show, I would seem strange/robotic/funny etc. In fact, I might attract more attention than the subject. But I also realised that if a viewer continued watching, and realised that I was ‘the same’ every time, they’d then eventually be able to focus all attention onto the subject. I became a part of the framing, and the framing remained consistent. The work, the subject, became the focus. As I’ve always said about As It Lays, it’s a series of portraits. I want each episode, or portrait, to really work in the sense of traditional portraiture – to reveal a likeness of the subject. So to speak to the question of irony, I’d say that irony never played any role in my thinking about As It Lays – I was simply working towards this very specific goal making portraits, and developing the framework necessary (which included my performance in the videos) to achieve it". Alex Israel, email to Gunnar B. Kvaran, 26 April 2016.
5. There are interesting similarities between As it Lays and Koons’ Made Heaven, where Koons creates the mise en scene and plays one of the main roles; Sherman always plays the main role in her works; Wall introduces the distantiation from the subject.
6. Israel, OCULAR, July, 2015.
7. I like this [title] because it's simple and it makes me an object and it brings all into the digital realm.’ Alex Israel, email to Gunnar B. Kvaran, 14 April 2016.