Self-portrait (Wetsuit)

Written by Therese Möllenhoff

Self-portrait (Wetsuit)

The sculpture Self-portrait (Wetsuit) is a self-portrait of Alex Israel’s own body dressed in the typical surfing outfit: a wetsuit. The sculpture was created through an elaborate process in which the artist’s body was scanned and 3D printed before the sculpture was cast in aluminium. The sculpture’s surface is covered with stucco – a mixture of cement, sand and water – which is a typical surface material in Californian architecture and which Israel often uses in his Flats works. The textural materiality of the stucco along with the spray-painted, graded colour tones imbue the sculpture with a sensual and seductive surface. Self-portrait (Wetsuit) joins the long tradition of sculptures that depict the human body. The sculpture is posed in a classical contrapposto, with the figure’s weight resting on one foot in order to depict a natural and organic position of relaxation. The work was partially inspired by an ancient Greek sculpture of a young athlete that is found in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Statue of a Victorious Youth (ca. 300 – 100 BC), depicting a young Olympic athlete. In Alex Israel’s universe it is the surfer who has assumed the role of the modern-day athlete, and the sculpture can thus be seen as an image of the principal athletic activity that characterises Los Angeles, the beach and surfing culture.

The sculpture stems from Alex Israel’s latest project, a film titled SPF-18, which will premiere in the late summer of 2016. The film, starring famous actors such as Keanu Reeves and Pamela Anderson, is targeted at young people, and takes place on a beach in Malibu. In the exhibition #AlexIsrael the artist has staged a “prop room” in the second storey of the museum, where we can see objects from the SPF-18 universe, including the film’s trailer, designs and props, as well as the actual wetsuits that were designed for the film and that Self-portrait (Wetsuit) is based on. Like many ancient sculptures Self-portrait (Wetsuit) lacks a head, but in a cabinet in the “prop room” the remaining parts of the wetsuit are exhibited: boots, gloves and a hood. Isolated in their own cabinet and spray-painted in the same graded colour tones, these objects can evoke associations with both surrealism and René Magritte’s universe, or to California sculptors such as Ron Nagle and Kenneth Price.

In the Astrup Fearnley Museet, the sculpture Self-portrait (Wetsuit) is placed at the end of a long pier that stretches from the stairs in the lobby of the museum and far into the main hall. With its old, worn wooden slats it is reminiscent of the classic California piers that are supported by pilings out in the water, weathered by the wind and water. The pier at the museum was inspired by the famous Pier at Paradise Cove in Malibu. This was the pier from which the Los Angeles lifeguard service operated their Baywatch boat in the 1970s and 80s. Paradise Cove is also a popular excursion spot for surfers, and thus a suitable platform for the wetsuit sculpture as an emblem of California’s surf culture. This pier installation is site-specific, created for the exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley Museet, but Israel regards it not as an artwork on its own terms, but rather as a pedestal for the sculpture. For Israel, the presentation and staging of the sculptural objects are an essential activity, which he terms framing. This is comparable to when props rented from film warehouses are upgraded to the rank of sculptures – even if temporarily – by staging them on white pedestals in the gallery space. With the pier he is taking the pedestal concept to a new level, where the pedestal stages not only the sculpture in the exhibition space, but also the viewers themselves and the way we experience the exhibition, which is almost directed from the all-encompassing backdrop Israel has created in order to elicit the atmosphere of Los Angeles.

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