Soooo LA!!! Alex Israel brings Los Angeles to Oslo
Q&A with Therese Möllenhoff, the curator of #AlexIsrael exhibition at Astrup Fearnley Museum
Photo: Christian Øen, Astrup Fearnley Museet 2016
After seeing a show by artist Alex Israel, people tend to say: “Alex is soooo LA!” Los Angeles born and bred, Israel is well-known not only for his graphic artworks, paintings, and sculptures, but also for founding the eyeglass label Freeway Eyewear, and producing the talk-show “As It Lays”.
At the exhibition at the Fearnley (through September 11, 2016), Israel sets up a dichotomy between the real LA, and how the city is usually portrayed in stories about the film industry, celebrities, and the American dream. With a surprising and original visual language, and a multifaceted artistic approach, Israel creates new links between the art and cultural history of today’s LA, and that of the past. The central site-specific object in the museum’s show is a life-size pier, which, along with other characteristic features of LA, carries the visitor into this city’s dreamworld.
#AlexIsrael at Astrup Fearnley Museet
Arterritory.com posed three questions to Therese Möllenhoff, one of the curators of the exhibition.
What would be three things that everybody should know about Alex Israel?
His connection to LA. Alex Israel is from LA, and in many ways his art can be understood as emerging from his Los Angeles-based life, and it is often referred to as a portrait of LA. This Californian city, with its vibrant film, tech, media and pop culture, serves as source material, subject matter and muse for his art, in which he appropriates, transforms and comments on elements of the city’s aesthetic and spirit. However, his “portrait of Los Angeles” is not necessarily reproduced from reality, but more from the reality of the media – drawing upon all the mediated images of LA and Hollywood that have been conveyed to us through television and movies. It is a portrait that confronts the representations and clichés of the city and its history. Like the city of their origin, his works are experienced as an interface of attractive surfaces and underlying hollowness and simulation. His appealing works circle around such themes as the film industry, celebrity culture and the American dream, and through his art, the mechanisms of these concepts are both embraced as well as exposed in all their ambiguity.
His “talk-show” As It Lays. Be sure to check out As It Lays, Alex Israel’s self-produced, web-based talk show (or, as he calls it: televisual interview series) that can be streamed online at www.asitlays.com or on YouTube. In each As It Lays episode Alex Israel interviews a celebrity. The subjects of the interviews all have a connection to Los Angeles, and represent a broad spectrum of Hollywood’s cast of characters, including actors, directors, authors, musicians, stylists and TV stars. The selection forms a very eclectic collection of figures from the city of dreams: musicians from Paul Anka to Marilyn Manson, actors from James Caan to Melanie Griffith, from newer (but perhaps already passé) reality stars such as Whitney Port and Adrienne Maloof, to strange LA characters such as Kato Kaelin from the O. J. Simpson court case and billboard star Angelyne.
As the programme’s host, Alex Israel always hides behind sunglasses, and in a palpably deadpan manner he reads aloud ostensibly random questions that range from the existential to the banal such as: What is the meaning of life, and what are your thoughts on energy drinks? A question like Given the chance, is there anything you'd like to change about the ten commandments? can be followed by a question like Have you ever said “let's do lunch” and not meant it? Without expression or follow-up questions from the host, situations arise that are both comical and revealing, and that feature an obvious ambiguity between concepts such as genuineness and parody, authenticity and acting. Israel himself insists that the intentions of the talk show are sincere, and rejects any notion of irony or satire. Even if the selection of assorted celebrities of varying topical interest might be perceived as ironic, or as a statement about the celebrity culture in and of itself, the artist insists that the interviewees have been chosen out of a genuine admiration for the imprint they have made on the city’s culture. As It Lays seems to play on such dualities. Circulating the programme on the Internet rather than solely in a restricted and self-identified critical art context opens the door to a variety of interpretations and double meanings. While some viewers encounter the programme as observers in a space devoted to art, others come across it by chance on YouTube. The unique alternation of the series between comic entertainment and critical disclosure, vis à vis the artist’s ostensible homage, seems to expose the mechanisms of the genre the programme has appropriated and of the entertainment system to which it belongs.
His upcoming feature length film entitled SPF-18. Alex Israel’s newest project is SPF-18, a feature length surf movie that explores the genre of teen movies. SPF-18 follows the lives of four 18-year-old friends who come of age and discover their creative voices one fateful, surf-filled summer in Malibu while house-sitting for Keanu Reeves. The script was developed in collaboration with Michael Berk, co-creator of Baywatch, and the movie also features actors like Pamela Anderson and Molly Ringwald. In the exhibition #AlexIsrael at Astrup Fearnley Museet, the SPF-18 project is represented by a 60-second movie trailer and a room with props and costumes, as well as related artworks from the movie, like the series of sculptures based on wetsuits. The movie is currently being edited, and will be completed later this year. Stay tuned!
Could you give us a few highlights of his oeuvre that can be seen in this exhibition?
The exhibition #AlexIsrael features several of his most recognized bodies of work: the self-portraits, the sky backdrop paintings, the As It Lays talk-show set, the new text paintings created in collaboration with author Bret Easton Ellis, the sky and palm tree murals, the monumental sculptures based on sunglasses lenses, and the smaller sculptures based on movie props. The exhibition also includes Israel’s video work like Rough Winds (2010), his talk show As It Lays (2012), and the premiere of a trailer from his new movie SPF-18 (2016). For Arterritory readers I would like to highlight his video works, because even if you’re not able to go to Oslo and experience the exhibition live at the museum, his video works can be streamed online at www.roughwinds.com and www.asitlays.com.
While As It Lays, as described above, portraits LA-characters through the format of a talk -show interview, Rough Winds is a web-series without narrator or dialogue. With stereotypical characters and a dramaturgy that references soap operas, the series shows how both the environment and the characters are so easily identifiable to us that we can understand and follow the action without the need for dialogue. Through web-series such as Rough Winds and As It Lays, Alex Israel combines the logic of the entertainment industry with the art’s potential for critical investigation. The result is works that reveal something about the mechanisms of the entertainment industry through the alternating use of, and infringement on, the genre’s conventions.
How does the exhibition express itself visually?
The exhibition #AlexIsrael features immersive, site-specific installations that not only bring the experience of Los Angeles into the museum, turning it into a gigantic 3D postcard from LA, but also change the way we use and experience the space. While you usually walk down a set of stairs to come down into the main gallery of the museum, Alex Israel has created a monumental life-size pier that extends from the top of the stairs of the museum lobby and out into the exhibition space of the main hall, creating a third level between the main gallery on the ground floor and the mezzanine on the second floor. The pier was inspired by the famous pier at Paradise Cove in Malibu with its weathered wooden planks. The 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 Self-Portrait (Wetsuit),which is placed at the end of the long wooden boardwalk. This monumental pier pedestal stages not only the sculpture in the exhibition space, but also the viewers themselves and the way we experience the exhibition, which becomes almost like directed by the artist with the pier and the all-encompassing sky backdrop mural he has created on the surrounding monumental museum walls. The blue and pink hues of the sky backdrop mural have a specific connection with both the natural landscape and culture of Los Angeles. As a part of the Los Angeles landscape, the sky motif has a strong presence in California art history, and as a cultural motif, the sky image is a common feature of Hollywood movie studio logos.
While in the main gallery, you’re down on the beach or on the pier; up on the mezzanine, you are on the streets of LA. The hyper-realistic palm trees painted on the walls of the mezzanine are based on photographs of real trees that stand along Ventura Boulevard. They also feature an art historical reference, echoing the LA-based artist Ed Ruscha`s artist book A Few Palmtrees from 1971. The palms are placed between paintings like the self-portraits and works from the Flats series, which is based on the architectural forms of Los Angeles. The juxtaposition of these artworks on the mezzanine shows characteristic motifs from the natural landscape and architecture of Los Angeles. Both the sky backdrop mural and the palm tree mural have been hand-painted by Andrew Pike, one of the few remaining scenic painters at the Warner Bros. film studio, where Israel produces his works using the expert craftsmanship of the last of the film industry’s scenic painters. Israel’s murals, like the art form they are based upon – 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.