[November 29 2016]
“Wake up! They’re all around!” Just as chewing bubblegum and kicking ass was antidote to sneaky subliminal messages, and cool shades a gradiented exposé of lizard people running the world in John Carpenter’s “They Live” (1988) so is frozen yoghurt, for Alex Israel, a faux-force to confront culture with due ‘chill,’ and sunglasses the necessary accoutrement provided to stare deep into its brilliant shine. These are no shades serendipitously stumbled upon to reveal the neoliberal horror called America. Rather, they reverse Carpenter’s dystopia by design, bathing it in light SoCal idealism—a product not far from Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose”, or seeing life through rose-coloured glasses. Gaze into a pair of Freeways (this write-up another “product placement vehicle” for Israel’s own brand of sunglasses) and you’ll be able to identify the Hollywood glitterati as human again; for example, in his talk show “As It LAys”, where they fidget in chairs taken from Israel’s father’s office, against backdrops painted by a prop guy at Warner Bros (claim to fame: the Conan moonscape, and now, Alex Israel.) The media, hyperactive, tends to focus on these ‘subjects’ as superficial alien entities whose fame has scaled down, though it is arguable that such critics are still wearing their ‘80s frames. If not exactly a misconception, such interpretation mislays intent: on Israel’s set, through his lenses (camera and shades) surface is perforated by awkward silence and squirming guests. THEY LIVE! is indeed the message, however ‘they’ are not glamorous lizard people after all, but real human beings, whereby ‘living’ is returned from the realms of stardom to an identifiable humanity. Israel’s dead-pan questions are empathetic precisely because they allow stars to speak for themselves—all performance, no acting.
At Le Mur, Le Consortium’s Paris satellite, a pseudo-fictional Santa Monica pier consumes ones field of vision, and an entire wall, as the space is fitted with a shoreline mural based on a Robert Giusti book cover illustration. The original piece, wrapped around “Tapping the Source” (1984) by ‘surf noir’ king Ken Nunn, was gifted to Israel by one of his gallerists; its kitschy view of the Pacific at dusk emblematic of Israel’s golden nostalgia. Tracking down Giusti in order to commission his own version of the piece, Israel redrafted the stripmall that sits against the shore in the original image (making the exhibition a row of storefronts in a storefront; neatly framed into the historical discourse of mise-en-abyme.) He adds a Freeway shop; a frozen yoghurt place (the recurring mention of which brings to mind Jeff Koons’ perpetual reminder that he really loves Led Zeppelin;) a neon-lit psychic’s office and a mysterious shop adorned with glass-tile windows and a decorative shell. Each boutique comes from a personal place, explains Israel, pointing to various shapes and forms that can be traced through his practice. A semantic satiation that replaces self with its anecdotal equivalent, Israel‘s mural is an affirmation that you can judge a book by its cover. At that, if such advertising can be imbued with a certain charm, Israel‘s mural will shortly travel to the cover of an upcoming catalogue, which is to belatedly accompany his Le Consortium show from way back in 2013. Cynically, the exhibition becomes but another billboard, yet to take from Israel himself: “superficiality is full of meaning and requires real, painstaking effort to understand.”
To make the effort, turn to a 2012 Frieze review, in which Jonathan Griffin poses the question: “Where is Israel himself in all of this?” (Front-centre, he says, wearing shades.) Answering what could have been left rhetorical, the writer misses an opportunity to invoke the stellar and inexpressible scales of fame touched on by the artist. Israel’s autobiographic impulse points to a monumentality akin to Robert Smithson’s ‘hyper-prosaism;’ the dialectics of form vs. content compressed into flat, bland surfaces, within which immortality is restored “by accepting it as a fact of emptiness.” To liberally paraphrase, Israel’s flats—the industry term for movie backdrops—freeze self (or subject) into cinematic monuments, like billboards, like films, where the ‘instance’ of fame becomes inextricable from its location. Like plugging in a Dan Flavin light fixture, Israel’s work instantiates an effect, which often outshines the actual physical object. Under this luminous quality, the self-as-monument, self metonymically linked to Los Angeles, these pieces fades as a vague and mysterious set design. More precisely, Israel’s work is materially neither himself nor LA; it is an assemblage of devices designed to procure the sense of locale, a mood, and an over-arching narrative. Within the Consortium exhibition, the viewer walks through rooms like cinematic spaces; in plain view one forgoes the constituents that build a whole. At Le Mur, these constituents are entirely done away with: the spell of surface binding his practice into a neat catalogue—shortly available for purchase.
This does not answer Griffin’s question, but hopefully points to the illusory distance between Israel and his works. He hovers in and around them, like the Wizard of Oz, his presence an effect of careful orchestration. That normcore, nice-guy thing serves as a narrative; its plot bouncing from West Coast romanticism, “Saved By The Bell”, celeb gossip, chilling, having a voice and succeeding à la the American dream. As we spoke, I berated a naff Parisian club as a hub for 70-year-old business types dancing to Béyonce: “She stopped by my show,” Israel brightened, “with Jay-Z!” With no shades on, his gentle enthusiasm illuminated my deep-rooted cynicism. Whilst networking is undoubtedly on Israel’s agenda and a part of his identity as an ex-art dealer-cum-celebrity-spotter, his desire to share an experience with those at Hollywood’s surface seems sincere. Israel seems to recognize himself in celebrities—not as narcissism, but in the mutual desire to partake in the magic of Hollywood. As celebrities approach the work, equally allured by his creative presence, Israel is fitted into a mise-en-abyme of cultish personalities, which at surface are all just images of an idea. Whether that idea is LA, fame or the monumentalisation of self doesn’t matter. It’s all a part of the magic, all a fiction. And as Smithson points out, “often the false has a greater value than the true.”
On view until December 31st, 2016 at Le Mur, 8 rue Saint-Bon, Paris.
Text Sabrina Tarasoff