Sky Backdrops

Written by Therese Möllenhoff

Sky Backdrops

A recurring motif in Alex Israel’s artistic practice is the California sky and sunset. The sky motif appears as a backdrop in video works such as As it Lays, as independent paintings – the Sky Backdrop paintings – and as site-specific murals in exhibitions, such as the enormous mural that transforms the main hall of the Astrup Fearnley Museet into a pastel-coloured sunset. The sky motif has a specific connection with the natural landscape and culture of both Los Angeles and Hollywood. As a part of the Los Angeles landscape, the sky motif has a strong presence in California art history. Generations of artists have been fascinated by the characteristic light and landscape conditions, and have been eager to explore them. The graded colours of Ed Ruscha’s pastels, Kenneth Price’s watercolours or DeWain Valentine’s skylines are obvious models from art history. As a cultural motif the sky pictures are a common feature of Hollywood’s historical scenic art, where large, painted stage elements were used as film backdrops. Israel’s backdrops were also inspired by the introductory sequences of Hollywood films, where the logos of the famous film studios are often placed in the foreground of these colourful skies. Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Paramount and Warner Bros. all present their logos on such a dreamlike sky, a visual motif that elicits an expectant mood in the viewers when it rolls across the screen. The traditional handicraft of painting these backdrops is now a dying art, in the process of being replaced by high-resolution digital images and large printers. Israel’s Sky Backdrop paintings and the enormous murals here at the museum were all executed by Andrew Pike, one of the few remaining scenic painters at the Warner Bros. film studio, where Israel has his studio and produces his works using the expert craftsmanship of the last of the film branch’s scenic painters.

The blue and pink hues evoke associations with the pastel colours of the 1980s, but are also enticingly similar to Pantone's 2016 “Colour of the Year”, which for the first time was a combination of two colours – precisely these shades of blue and pink. This colour combination thus feels both nostalgic, reminiscent of the 80s, and intensely contemporary at one and the same time. Alex Israel’s Sky Backdrops first appeared is his talk show As it LAys, where a similar pink and blue sky painting towers in the background as a backdrop for the TV set, and frames the action that takes place on the talk show stage. This eventually acquired the form of independent painterly works, and later took the step out into spatial stagings as murals. The largest of these so far is, in fact, this gigantic mural at the Astrup Fearnley Museet. Israel has described how exhibition spaces can function as vessels in which to create a fantasy, and with this mural he brings the feeling of, and the fantasy about, Los Angeles and California into the museum in Oslo. His visual universe is seductive, and Israel’s murals, like the art form they are based on, Hollywood’s scenic art, are also perfectly calibrated to function as a background for our contemporary stagings in the digital sharing and experiencing economy in which the world might seem to be one vast selfie backdrop, where places are consumed as backgrounds for pictures ready to be shared on Instagram. The hashtag is already in place: #AlexIsrael. Israel says about his Sky Backdrops that “…anyone who stands in front of it is an actor in front of it”, and he thus builds on the theatrical representation of reality that such background paintings once implied.

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