Written by Therese Möllenhoff


Alex Israel does not refer to his wall-hung painted panels as paintings, but as flats. The concept stems from the film industry, and describes the types of two-dimensional panels that are used as backdrops for TV, films and the theatre. Such flat, painted stage elements can be moved about and set up as temporary spaces and stage sets. The design of Israel’s shaped panels was inspired by the architecture of Los Angeles, specifically by the distinctive door and window motifs of the Spanish colonial style. This style was very popular in California during the first few decades of the 20th century and was often used as a backdrop in films made in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Israel describes this style as a design fantasy that appropriates forms imitating exotic places, making it an obvious choice in Hollywood’s dream world. This architecture and its typical forms are part of the experience that Israel terms “Hollywooding”: the distinctive manner in which people live and move in Los Angeles, driving around in a car under the palm trees, under the colourful sunsets, passing by houses that are perceived as a backdrop to one’s own life. Israel’s notion of “Hollywooding” seems to allude to models from art history such as Ed Ruscha’s iconic work from 1979 ascertaining that "Hollywood is a verb".

The colour palette of the works in the Flats series was inspired by the aesthetics of the American breakfast TV and talk shows of the 1980s, and the spray-painted, colour-graded surfaces are meant to imitate the effects used in studio lighting. The red and orange hues in works such as Untitled (Flat) (2012) invoke references to the art history of California, such as Ed Ruscha’s pastel works. These were also inspired by the intense, colour-graded sunsets in Los Angeles, which have fascinated generations of artists. The panels are covered with stucco which is a typical material used in Californian architecture, and were then spray-painted in seductive graded colour shades. The result is a richly textured and sensuous surface. Israel refers to stucco as his favourite material from Los Angeles because it implies a kind of hollowness. This interaction between surface and emptiness is a recurring theme in Israel’s art, both materially and conceptually.

Israel’s Flats are used as independent, wall-hung works, such as the star-shaped Untitled (Flat) (2012), but also as backgrounds, or backdrops, for other facets of his artistic practice. The latter includes backdrops for the staged actions that occur during the recording of the talk show As It Lays, as well as backgrounds for the readymade sculptures that Israel has worked with for several previous exhibitions. In the on-going Property series, Israel rents props from large prop warehouses, which he then stages as temporary sculptures on large pedestals in front of these flats. The work Untitled (Flat with Niche) (2014) combines elements from Israel’s art production with both flats and props. In the middle of the rectangular panel a small niche has been hollowed out in which a sculptural object has been placed. The sculpture is The Maltese Falcon, one of the world’s most iconic and easily recognisable film props. This prop plays a main role in the 1941 classic Hollywood film The Maltese Falcon, where Humphrey Bogart portrays a detective who is searching for this sculpture. In the last scene of the film a police officer is holding the statuette, and asks, "What is it?" Bogart gives the legendary response: "The stuff that dreams are made of." The idea of such a “magical aura” is something that intrigues Israel in his exploration of the objects used in the film industry – how an object such as The Maltese Falcon has achieved the status of one of the most famous props and collector’s items in film history. As opposed to Israel’s temporary, rented prop sculptures, this has been cast in bronze from a plaster version found in the Warner Bros. plaster and casting workshop. It is thus a copy of a copy, which in an ambiguous manner invokes something of both the original prop’s star aura and a new sculptural status as an art object. The Maltese Falcon is what Israel calls a "hero prop", an object that plays a key role in the films and propels the action forward. These types of props are exclusive, exalted and touched by a star – a description that could also apply to an art object, if an artist’s staging can lift an everyday object to give it the status of an artwork. The work The Maltese Falcon, as it is touched by the "stardust" of both film and art, might be said to thematise the personality cults of both the film star and the artist.

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