Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

alex israel

los angeles
art
alex israel

interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
All artworks courtesy of the artist

He recently bought an old movie theater on Pico Boulevard for his studio. He just made a parody of a teen movie in Malibu. He launched a clothing line called “Infrathin,” based on a word from Marcel Duchamp. He sells his own sunglasses, Freeway Eyewear. He’s cool, successful, good-looking, and able to look at his own city the way a tourist does and then manipulate its visual alphabet — the perfect sunset, tinted glasses, surfers, television, movie stars, cactuses, palm trees — and turn them into exciting artworks. Alex Israel incarnates the new California art scene and its laid-back lifestyle.

OLIVIER ZAHM — All that you do captures the essence of Los Angeles. The city is really booming these days and attracting so many new people while still embodying the American Dream. So, let’s speak about your art and Los Angeles at the same time. I’ll start simply. Are you from LA?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes. I was born at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] Medical Center. My parents went to college there. My dad grew up in LA; my mom is from San Diego. They met and fell in love at UCLA and stayed in Westwood, which is the neighborhood where the university is located. I’ve lived here my whole life, except for three years in college and six months in New York.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Only six months in New York?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes, for one last East Coast winter. I moved to New York for a job after college. Then I had to come home.

OLIVIER ZAHM — If you’ve always lived here, does that mean you never suffered from the complex that art is made in New York, and not in LA?

ALEX ISRAEL — I’ve heard the story that John Baldessari used to tell his students to go to New York if they wanted to “make it,” but those days are long over. And that’s been apparent to me for a while, I guess probably since I was in high school. Since then, I’ve been aware that so many amazing artists live and work here in LA. Creativity is such a crucial part of the culture and identity of this city.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the city itself a visual influence on your art?

ALEX ISRAEL — Los Angeles is almost like a palette or an alphabet that I absorbed as a child. In addition to art, there’s the city’s architectural vernacular — its forms, textures, and colors, from Spanish Colonial Revival to postmodern — which I’ve also been absorbing, by proximity, since childhood.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which LA artists were really important to you when you were younger?

ALEX ISRAEL — There are so many. Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, Larry Bell, Ken Price, Vija Celmins, John Baldessari, and Charles Ray have long been super-important to me, even as a youngster. Seeing Frank Gehry’s show at MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles] in 1988, which included his furniture designs, has stayed with me since childhood. So many things
I saw in homes, in private collections, or at museums when I was growing up just resonated. They made me curious; they propelled me to seek out more. My grandparents had a Billy Al Bengston painting in their house in San Diego — which I’ve always loved. When I was growing up, my parents and grandparents took me to museums.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That could have created the opposite effect on you and pushed you away from art.

ALEX ISRAEL — It was the opposite: I started going to art shows on my own once
I turned 16 and got my driver’s license. In high school, I first discovered Raymond Pettibon, Larry Johnson, Barbara Kruger, Charles Ray, and Mike Kelley. I made a point to see every show I could in LA. Back then, my visits were pretty comprehensive because there wasn’t as much going on as there is now. The summer before my senior year I interned for an amazing artist named Lita Albuquerque. She’s a Light and Space artist, and she teaches at ArtCenter. That experience profoundly impacted my life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I get the feeling there’s a real transmission from artists to students here in LA.

ALEX ISRAEL — That was always a big part of the Los Angeles art world, especially when considering artists like Baldessari, Ray, and Kelley, who all taught for many years. I missed that moment, as I was a bit too young, but I did intern for Baldessari the summer after my freshman year of college. He told me about another LA artist I’ve admired ever since: William Leavitt. I had amazing artist-teachers in graduate school at USC [University of Southern California]: Charlie White, Frances Stark, and Andrea Zittel. And William Leavitt agreed to sit on my senior thesis committee.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When were you in art school?

ALEX ISRAEL — From 2008 to 2010.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I forget how young you are.

ALEX ISRAEL — I was in graduate school when I began doing interviews for you!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Those interviews were brilliant because they were intellectual yet also created a sort of Warholian platform for celebrity.

ALEX ISRAEL — I remember interviewing Kenneth Anger, Bret Easton Ellis, and Charles Ray for Purple. That was the first time I really got to know Bret [Easton Ellis]. That interview helped establish our dialogue, which ultimately developed into a collaboration.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it when you assisted my friend, the artist Jason Rhoades, that you really started to envision being an artist yourself?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes. In 2005 and 2006.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He died in 2006. What did you learn from him?

ALEX ISRAEL — Oh my god, I learned so much! I love that Jason loved finding friction within any establishment, within the structure of art and the art world. And I love that he was so entrepreneurial — a quality that was definitely a source of friction. He could think like an inventor or impresario, while remaining extremely sensitive to form, materiality, and the poetry of things. He saw all the way around an object — considered its space, glow, aura, and charisma — and adopted these immaterial attributes as part of his sculptural vocabulary. I’ve never met another artist who has achieved his level of facility, both physically and metaphysically, for American material culture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did he help to give you a sense of freedom, like “I can become an artist and create my own world”?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yeah, absolutely. Working for Jason,
I witnessed a level of freedom that was completely inspiring. All of the artists I worked for were helpful in that regard. To see how they structured their lives and their work — those experiences were invaluable.

OLIVIER ZAHM — An artist like Jason Rhoades was a good exexample of the anti-system, critical approach to art, typical of the ’90s and of my generation. You seem to work in the opposite direction: embracing the commercial system, media, and even marketing strategies. What is your position?

ALEX ISRAEL — I think today so many more people understand how media and culture systems work. In many ways, the world has become more transparent, thanks to the Internet and social media, so I’ve never felt like it was my job to critique these systems or to pull back the curtain to reveal what we all already know them to be. It’s interesting to think about other places one might find friction — for me, it’s just not going to come from a position of critique.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In your case, is there more of a sense of irony, like you’re pushing the buttons of a narcissistic system?

ALEX ISRAEL — My work isn’t ironic. I do, however, believe that narcissism plays a huge role in our culture, possibly now more than ever. Throughout modern history, different technologies and materials have become commodified and/or readily available at different moments.
From bronze to photography to Marilyn Monroe, these inventions have provided rich tools and/or materials for artists to work through and figure out. Today, using the Internet and social media, we’ve embraced the commodification of ourselves. We’re now the product, and as a massive shift toward self-branding and constant visibility continues to be the language of this moment, I want to speak it and to understand it fluently.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But the way you use yourself is like your face is the canvas: it becomes the filter for looking not only at LA, but also the dream of LA. So, do you make your life, or your personal self, larger than life?

ALEX ISRAEL — Well, that’s what the Internet and social media have allowed us to do: anyone with a smartphone can become a brand and turn his or her life into something filtered, desirable, seductive, and popular, and be followed, looked at, liked, trolled, and consumed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And how did you get this idea to use your face in profile?

ALEX ISRAEL — When I was making As It Lays, my talk show, I was inspired by and wanted to reference Alfred Hitchcock. He used an image of his profile in the opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so I used mine in homage. It then became my Facebook profile picture —
I thought it was a funny play on the word “profile,” and then it just kind of stuck.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you afraid of becoming a logo, or becoming a brand? Because you’re a bit shy, aren’t you?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yeah, I’m shy. I was terrified! But I felt that I had to embrace it. I mean [laughs], in a way that’s what making art feels like: it’s a process of being terrified to do something, but then doing it anyway. At the time, I was also uncomfortable with the idea of putting myself in my work, being so front-and-center, and using my face as a logo. But I also felt, intuitively, for whatever reason, that I had to do it. I had to take the leap and to embody the idea of the selfie. I remember just starting to hear the word “selfie” in conversation, right around that time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s not just a selfie, it’s also a portrait of a time and a city?

ALEX ISRAEL — That’s correct — it’s me at face value, but it’s not just me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have this obsession with sunglasses. Why did you focus on glasses?

ALEX ISRAEL — Glasses mediate how we see. They change the way we see the world, and that’s what I’ve always thought art is supposed to do. Sunglasses are also a symbol of Los Angeles culture. It’s sunny here — people wear sunglasses. You need them to drive, and for basic safety. There’s also, of course, a real Hollywood and celebrity connection. No one in art had yet taken ownership of sunglasses as a symbol, so they were up for grabs, and I grabbed them. Initially, I wasn’t ready to make art when I started graduate school, so I started making and ultimately selling sunglasses. Freeway Eyewear developed as a kind of parallel and complementary practice to my experiments in art-making, and it gave me experience with a number of tools that I’ve used to make art and to brand myself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’re still doing it?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yeah, a little bit. We sell them online and in a couple of stores. But in a similar vein, I’m also now making apparel. I’m about to launch a line called Infrathin. The brand name, which my friend Jack Bankowsky suggested I use, comes from Marcel Duchamp’s word “inframince.” So, I’m using the English version: infrathin. I’m making t-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, hats, scarves, and I’ll be doing some collaborations with other brands. I’m also making shorts and swim trunks — all kinds of stuff. We’re launching at Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong in May, to coincide with my show there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s soon. Will we be able to buy it online?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yeah. Hopefully by mid-summer. ShopInfrathin.com.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Infrathin. Why did you pick this word?

ALEX ISRAEL — I like it because it’s not a commonly used word, and most people ask me what it means — and that question ignites a conversation. It’s a mysterious word, but it’s also funny because it sounds vaguely familiar, like it could be a technical fabric or a weight-loss program. Duchamp used it to describe the imperceptible difference between two identical things. The history of the readymade has always inspired me and enriched my thinking, and
I love thinking about the difference between one t-shirt and another, or one pair of sunglasses and another, and whether or not one might be art and the other just a regular pair of sunglasses. I also like that some things I make don’t have to be defined as art. The word “Infrathin” really sums all of this up quite well.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What would you say about your successful lens sculpture?

ALEX ISRAEL — My lens sculptures are made of UV protective acrylic. Just like sunglass lenses.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They are also referring to a Light and Space sculptural tradition, like DeWain Valentine, or…

ALEX ISRAEL — Exactly. John McCracken. Larry Bell. Craig Kauffman. Artists that
I learned about when I was young, growing up here — all amazing LA artists.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not afraid to have a double identity as an artist and an entrepreneur.

ALEX ISRAEL — Well, of course I’m afraid, I’m terrified of everything. But I do it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] It’s not like you need the money from a brand.

ALEX ISRAEL — I do both for the same reasons artists have done such things in the past: to expand the audience, to be able to engage people in different ways, and through different contexts. And I love thinking about the limits of an art object and the relationship between art and life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Keith Haring? He was maybe one of the first artists to do that with his shop.

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes. And Dalí made perfume, Warhol made films and published a magazine, and of course Keith Haring, who made t-shirts and key chains and all kinds of merch, had the Pop Shop. And there are others too numerous to name here, all of whom have provided such amazing precedents. Today, we live in a moment of incredible access to manufacturers and
to makers of all kinds all over the world, via the Internet. So, it feels natural to me to have an idea and to go online and figure out how to execute it, no matter what medium the idea demands. I often think in terms of products and films and online videos and…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Sculpture?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes, and sculpture. And painting. I think in terms of murals or a soundtrack, or a t-shirt or whatever!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you also think in terms of lifestyle? Because your entire studio is a lifestyle choice, from the furniture to the desk to your art collection, the plants, the architecture here. The art is not just a product. It’s a whole personal environment.

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes. And that goes back to how we portray ourselves in the world through social media. We can all now create our own personal lifestyle brand, so that’s what I’m doing. As I mentioned earlier, an LA artist who has been really inspiring to me is David Hockney. I’ve always felt that he understood something about the lifestyle here, and lifestyle branding, that other artists of his generation didn’t grasp fully.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can feel that in the film A Bigger Splash: the whole environment, the look…

ALEX ISRAEL — He painted his spaces, his house, his pool, and he dressed like his paintings. And his friends were in his work, and he came to represent a certain type of free-spirited way of California life at a crucial moment in time. And that’s always been how I’ve read
his work.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Totally LA.

ALEX ISRAEL — And different from Warhol. Warhol also put his friends in his work and supplemented his gallery practice with so many extracurricular projects, in language and writing and music and film. But Hockney really captured something from a West Coast perspective,
LA freedom, and that certainly spoke to me as a kid.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because he captured in his paintings the LA mood and lifestyle like no other LA artist?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes. And I understood his vocabulary. But on another level, his work feels so direct — as if it’s all centered on a through-line that can be easily and directly traced back to him. Warhol created a bigger structure or system around him, or an illusion of one, with lots of assistants working at The Factory. Warhol’s lifestyle brand was based on corporate structure. Hockney’s has always felt so personally driven and DIY — which is more like how we build ourselves as brands today, on Instagram or Twitter. Anybody can do it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But Hockney also had his own approach to the color, light, and sensations that are a given here in California. It’s in David Hockney but also in your work. Your sunset paintings, made by a professional background artist: that’s an image that’s on everyone’s mind every day at five o’clock. People look at the sunset. They wait for it.

ALEX ISRAEL — It’s a big part of our life here.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s a boulevard mentality that says you relax at sunset.

ALEX ISRAEL — That’s right, and you take a deep breath.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And this is not easy to capture because you have to be able to re-deconstruct or reimagine the cliché.

ALEX ISRAEL — Well, clichés exist because they’re real and true. I don’t believe they should be off-limits, simply because they’re exhausted. It’s sort of a great challenge to find new ways to see them, to make them feel fresh.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you get this idea of panels for the sunset? Was it because you were doing TV interviews?

ALEX ISRAEL — Originally, I thought up the panels as set pieces for a photo shoot for the sunglasses. I wanted them to reflect the LA vernacular, so they’re arch-shaped. The arch is a basic form you learn in fourth grade when you study California Mission architecture. Missions were the first permanent structures built in the state. They all had arched colonnades, made out of adobe brick. So, the arched shapes of my very first Flats referenced this California history. They’re coated in stucco, the cheap approximation of adobe, which skins just about every
building in Los Angeles. Their sunset-colored gradients were borrowed directly from the sky.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And now you use them as a background for your sculpture — for example, the sculpture of the car with the cactus. And they exist separately from the background?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yeah, that’s correct. I sometimes put them together, backdrop and sculpture. And the sculpture becomes the performer. Making sculpture is sometimes, for me, like casting: finding the object with the most star quality. I often think about the flats and backdrops as frames for potential or unrealized performances.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about your film, SPF-18. Are you satisfied with it? Are you ready to do another one?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yes and yes, I definitely want to do another one. Not another teen movie, something more adult. I learned so much while making SPF-18 — because it was a truly independent project, and I was involved in every step of the process — and now that I know how it all gets done, I’m extra ready for round two.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you define the LA dream for you? Is it a lifestyle?

ALEX ISRAEL — I think a lot of people come to Los Angeles to become someone else, to be loved, to become famous, to be celebrated, and, of course, to achieve a dream of a more fulfilling and successful life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — With social media, that’s the way everything works now. This is maybe why LA is the symbol of this new-media world. But is there also still a dark side in LA? Does the LA-noir mythos mean something to you?

ALEX ISRAEL — Everything has a dark side. Every bright light casts a shadow.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you pick up on Bret Easton Ellis’s dark side?

ALEX ISRAEL — Certainly his perspective on things is darker than mine. And in many ways, for me, our collaboration was about finding an alter ego.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Could one of the kids from Less Than Zero have been you?

ALEX ISRAEL — Those kids did spend a lot of time in Westwood, at the arcade on Weyburn Avenue, which was where I used to hang out. But they were older: they were in high school when I was still just a little tyke.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How does your collaboration work? Does he choose the words?

ALEX ISRAEL — Bret imagines a world — with characters, locations, and situations — to create the context and tone for our works together, the same way he would imagine one for a novel. And then, from that world, he extracts his phrases and sentences. Then I combine his texts with stock photographic images, choose fonts, and compose layouts. When we were making the work for the Beverly Hills show, he wrote more than 1,000 texts, but only 16 or 17 became paintings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the worst about LA?

ALEX ISRAEL — Jet lag! I slept only four hours last night — I just got back from Austria, so I’m still jet-lagged. I woke up extra early this morning, worked out, made protest signs, and went to the March for Our Lives with my sister. Then I went downtown to see a few galleries before meeting you here.

END

ALEX ISRAEL STUDIO
W PICO BLVD
LOS ANGELES CA 90019

SPF-18 MOVIE POSTER

ALEX ISRAEL, LENS (PURPLE), 2014, UV PROTECTIVE PLASTIC PHOTO ZARKO VIJATOVIC ALEX ISRAEL, SELF-PORTRAIT, 2013, SUNSET STRIP, BILLBOARD, PHOTO MICHAEL UNDERWOOD ALEX ISRAEL, WAVE, 2018, ACRYLIC ON FIBERGLASS PHOTO MARTIN WONG ALEX ISRAEL, MURAL INSTALLATION IN SOLO EXHIBITION, “ALEX ISRAEL AT THE HUNTINGTON,” AT THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS, AND BOTANICAL GARDENS, SAN MARINO PHOTO MICHAEL UNDERWOOD ALEX ISRAEL, CASTING, 2015, ACRYLIC ON BRONZE PHOTO JOSHUA WHITE ALEX ISRAEL, SELF-PORTRAIT (THREE SURFERS), 2017, ACRYLIC AND BONDO ON FIBERGLASS PHOTO MICHAEL UNDERWOOD

 

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Los Angeles issue #30

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