Written by Therese Möllenhoff
Lens (Yellow), 2015. Photo: Zarko Vijatovic
Alex Israel’s Lens series comprises large and seemingly abstract sculptures, which nevertheless have a familiar form: the big, curved plastic shape that leans against the wall is based on a sunglass lens that has been enlarged into a monumental sculpture. Sunglasses are a recurring theme in Alex Israel’s artistic practice, and appear in a variety of contexts in his work. He regards them as an emblem of the spirit and lifestyle of Los Angeles. They are an essential object in everyday life in California, while at the same time the mysterious aura of sunglasses is closely connected with the celebrity culture. This duality in the use of sunglasses is an important element for Israel: they are objects whose dark glass you can hide behind, while on the other hand they can also attract attention to you if they have a flamboyant shape. Sunglasses function as an identity marker, a prop in the construction of one’s own image, and different types of sunglasses can be elements in the staging of what or whom one wants to identify with.
“Sunglasses happen to evoke the same concerns as my art: Los Angeles culture, desire, entertainment, framing and seeing the world through a lens."(1)
In addition to his career as an artist, Alex Israel has also established his own brand of sunglasses: Freeway Eyewear. Israel does not regard Freeway as part of his art, but the sunglasses nonetheless infiltrate other aspects of his artistic practice. They appear as props in his very first video work, Rough Winds (2011), a dialogue-free web-based series that not only appropriates the habitual narrative logic of the TV branch, but also its concept of product placement, by having all the characters wear Freeway sunglasses and thus function as advertising for the brand. Another example is the constant presence of the sunglasses on Israel himself, as in the talk show As It LAys (2012) where he, in the role of the host, without exception wears his own brand of sunglasses. According to him, it is in order to reduce the effect of his own performance as host so viewers will focus more on the personalities of the interviewees. From commercial product to prop to artwork, the formal element of sunglasses is transformed into the sculptural works in the Lens series, which appear as hybrids of actual glass lenses and the Californian West Coast minimalist aesthetic and superficial fetishism. The monumental Lens sculptures are made of UV-protective plastic material, like the lenses of ordinary sunglasses. The sculptures contain clear references to California art history and artists such as John McCracken, DeWain Valentine, Larry Bell and Craig Kauffman, who created a distinctive form of West Coast minimalism in the 1960s – 70s. These artists, known as the Light and Space and Finish Fetish artists, explored the characteristic light and landscape conditions of California and produced minimalist objects in materials derived from the Californian automobile, surfing and airplane industries. These thematic and material points of departure can be applied to Israel’s art, which follows in their footsteps with regard to both the California landscape and the materials used. Although his works have an immediately apparent similarity in form with, and references to, the California minimalism of the 1960s, they are based on a contemporary reality in which they are included as a component in an “Alex Israel universe” and appear in a number of different contexts, from commercial sunglass collections to props in video works to monumental abstract sculptures.
Like his artistic predecessors, Israel has derived the colours of the lens sculptures in the series from the California colour palette, and Lens (Yellow) radiates a sheen of golden light and sunshine. The surface of Israel’s lens sculpture, again like those of his predecessors, is an essential element, enabling the viewers to reflect themselves in the perfect, shiny façade. It is as though the Californian Finish Fetish tradition no longer involves merely the materials of the area, but now also the people. The sculpture is both reflexive and transparent, and like the city that inspired it, Israel’s work is experienced at the interface of the attractive surface and its transparency, or underlying emptiness. The title, Lens, also invokes another important component of Israel’s artistic practice: how the film industry portrays the world through a lens. From a historical point of view, Hollywood’s scenic art has been constructed specifically to be observed through a film lens. By the same token, sunglasses also function as a filter and a frame for what we see, which Israel regards as a metaphor for art – something that changes the way we see the world.
"I see sunglasses as the symbol of Southern California: they’re objects that change the way we see things, and that’s an interesting way of thinking about art."(2)
1. Surface Magazine
2. Interview (magazine)