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Alex Israel. Sky Backdrop, 2013

When Hollywood came to town… Alex Israel in Isbrytaren 0

Alida Ivanov from Stockholm

Alex Israel
August 29 - October 5, 2013

The first time I saw an Alex Israel exhibition, I was smitten. It had all of the elements that I love: celebrities, cynicism, and TV.  It was in New York at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. I went there to hang out with a friend who works at the gallery and ended up spending a couple of hours there with her. Every time someone entered the gallery, my friend would say “Aleeex is sooo LAAAAAA” in her Swedo-Americana accent. And now, a year later, I meet his work again: the same themes, but in a different context.

Alex Israel was born in 1982 and is based in Los Angeles. Besides being an artist, he is also the co-founder of Freeway Eyewear. He graduated from Yale University in 2003 and received his MFA from the University of Southern California's Roski School of Fine Arts in 2010. The work in focus at Reena Spaulings was the web-based work As It LAys (, which refers to Los Angeles as a city and is borrowed from a Joan Didion novel. The video work takes the shape of a talk show with a 1980-90’s aesthetic: everything from the music, to the camera/sound, to the color palette. The set for the show is made up by the installation Sky Backdrops: boards in pastel, cloudy colors. The show consists of Israel interviewing, all in all, 30 “celebrities”; some more famous than others, but all are, in many ways, Hollywood/Los Angeles (LA) personalities. Among the interviewed we meet the musician Marilyn Manson and the writer Bret Easton Ellis, to name two. All of the interviews are built up according to a formula that consists of randomly selected note cards. Israel sits there blankly in his black shades, and never pursues follow-up questions. It creates a strangeness: on one hand, the interviewee tries to uphold an image; on the other, they get nervous, so that they either talk too much or not at all. This leads to the interviews varying in length: some are one or two minutes long, and some are about 15-20 minutes long. The theme song: a classic case of melody-mania. It just sticks in your head, forever and ever and ever. 

In his first solo show in Sweden, we are met by the same theme and similar elements.  The sound piece KBRZ The Breeze echoes from Isbrytaren’s rooms and into the dark corners of your brain and then stays there, much like the theme song from As It LAys. The work is, according to hearsay, about four hours long and mimics a radio show. It is made up by well-known tunes from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s – like The Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus, Elton John and so on. It adds a certain sensation of annoyance to the show. The rest of the exhibition is made up of: Sky Backdrops, white director’s chairs, one big sun-glass lens, and large Alex Israel-heads in a row. But, it’s all still too scarce. Or maybe the space is too big; there is definitely a glitch in the correspondence between the work and the space. The backdrops are placed sporadically within the rooms, which then creates delineations, but it’s still not enough. I wonder if it would’ve worked better if the whole space hadn’t been used, but only a part of it instead.  By the backdrops, groups of chairs have been placed out in many configurations, which invites people to interact with the show by sitting in them. However, it’s uncertain what the motif behind this interaction is. Is it to create intimacy, or is it to give the visitor a director’s role? 

The Alex Israel-heads lined up in a row is probably my second favorite artwork in the show (the first being the annoying sound piece, of course). I like the fun colors, the reference to Andy Warhol, and the Warner Bros-stamp on the back of the heads. The only thing is that I would like them to be bigger, and for there to be more of them.

The sun-glass lens leans against a wall, but it has been placed closer to one end of it, which creates an imbalance in the composition (you would either want one more lens, or, place the single one closer to the center of the wall). It’s clear that Alex Israel had an idea of what he wanted to show and how to do that, but what that has ended up being is a bit unclear. As I mentioned earlier, this is the first time Israel shows his work in Sweden, which would mean, as an organizer, one would probably work even more with using text and conveying information to the visitor. Right? No. And by “no”, I mean as in: no press release, no CV, no list of works. More importantly, the show should convey why this artist is important, or rather, if he actually is important at all?

Alex Israel doesn’t try to capture a romantic picture of LA – he refers to a place that he knows and grew up in. The strange thing is that it’s probably a place where all of us grew up: with TV, movies and other intakes of popular culture. He doesn’t describe this place as someone who is a part of it, but rather takes on the role of the outsider: he plays the same part as the rest of us, as someone looking in. But he’s not a passive viewer, and in the end, he’ s always the star of his own show. The process looks like an analysis of the different components that make up Hollywood, and then he used them to create his own artistic persona.

In the end, I still have a weakness for his themes and aesthetic. It kind of feels like coming home; Hollywood plays such a large part of the way I view the world through an extensive intake of TV, films and magazines. He does create a strange type of cold intimacy because as a visitor, you simultaneously are involved in the story, but kept outside of it: just like when watching a film or a TV-show.