Written by Therese Möllenhoff
Self-portrait, 2013. Photo: Christian Øen
Self-portrait (Surf Shop), 2016. Photo: Christian Øen
Self-Portrait (Sunset Strip), 2016. Photo: Christian Øen
Alex Israel’s self-portraits have become one of his most easily recognisable series of works. They all present the artist’s sunglass-bedecked profile as he appears in the talk show As It LAys. The design was first used as the talk show’s logo, and there Israel is transformed into a graphic variant of his own profile during the opening credits. The idea of having the programme’s host morph into a graphic emblem was inspired by the opening of the programme Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which the legendary director walks into a silhouette of himself, becoming one with his profile. Israel takes Hitchcock’s concept one step further and develops the graphic profile from the programme’s logo as a part of his artistic practice, where the design of the computer graphic serves as the source of a series of self-portraits. Israel’s use of his own profile as a logo reflects his obsessive focus on branding and his own persona. Regarding oneself as a brand with one’s own logo becomes a natural part of his all-encompassing artistic stagings.
Within the framework of the identifiable profile silhouette that provides the structure of the self-portraits, Israel has created countless variations of both colours and motifs. By displaying the endless possibilities of varying his own “profile”, these works also reflect a contemporary activity: the construction of our own identity through the profile images of the social media. Israel’s experimentation with the self-portrait motif as a painting arose as a result of his using the logo as the profile picture on his Facebook page, after which he began to experiment with different colour combinations. Without burdening himself with the colour theories of modernism, Israel has derived his colour variations from a broad range of sources from both popular culture and art history, including the art of David Hockney, the film Avatar and even tropical fish. The works join a long tradition of self-portraits, and hold clear references to pop art and Andy Warhol’s colour variations of celebrities and self-portraits. After first having worked with colour variations of the various components of the design – sunglasses (his own brand, Freeway), hair and beard – Israel has recently developed the series further to include photographic image motifs within the silhouette of the self-portrait. The most recent motifs include images from the artist’s life and work in addition to stereotypical Los Angeles motifs such as the sky, the sea, the sunset, the beach and the city’s advertising and display signs. Thus the pictures are not only a portrait of the artist himself, but also a portrait of the city. Like a mise en abyme, the very latest work in the series, Self-Portrait (Sunset Boulevard) (2016), contains an image of the self-portrait Israel had mounted on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard as an advertisement for an exhibition in 2013. The use of multiple versions, ranging from a logo to a painting to an advertisement and back to a painting, illustrates Israel’s unconstrained circulation of his idioms in various contexts.
The works have perfectly smooth surfaces covered with airbrushed painting, executed at Warner Bros. Studios, where Israel produces much of his art. The backs of the works are stamped with the Warner Bros. seal in addition to Israel’s own signature. Like Jeff Koons in his sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which was signed by the porcelain firm Villari, Israel thus also acknowledges the expert craftsmanship that characterises the production of his pop-conceptual works, and regards these projects as collaborative. The profile-shaped paintings can evoke associations with the shaped canvas tradition of the 1960s, but with Israel the characteristically formed facial profile of the self-portraits is possible because they are made of fibreglass and Bondo, a two-component putty that is often used in the automobile and surfing industries. The same materials form the basis of two typical objects in Los Angeles life: the car and the surfboard. As in all of Israel’s art, the works, and here also the materials, always pertain to LA and to himself.