Summertime Happiness: L.A. artist Alex Israel
JON LEON: So, Alex, are you going to see Palo Alto this Memorial Day weekend?
ALEX ISRAEL: I won’t be able to see it this weekend because I have to go to New York for work, but I definitely want to see it. I’ve heard good things, and I keep catching bits of praise and excitement for the movie on Instagram. I love Dev Hynes’s music and he scored the film. Last weekend I saw Neighbors and Godzilla.
LEON: Yeah, Devonté Hynes’s stuff is the music that I’ve been most into the last couple of years. It is very relaxed.
ISRAEL: Hynes’s music gives me a sense of well-being. It sounds like an old Madonna song I may have heard in my parents’ car as a child on the way to school.
LEON: Do you relax much?
ISRAEL: I relax at night when I turn on the DVR and catch up on American Idol, Scandal, Nashville, and Downton Abbey. I relax when I’m on an airplane and my phone is off. I relax in the movie theater, the gym, on a weekend hike or bike ride, and every morning when I drink cold-pressed green juice and hang out on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram for a bit before I jump into work.
LEON: You’re always working on many things at once. Didn’t you just get back from China?
ISRAEL: I did just get back from China. I went to Beijing for a site visit at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, where I’ll be making a mural this coming September. I got to relax quite a bit on that trip. There was a mall attached to my hotel, and in it a great healthy restaurant called Element Fresh, which served fresh green juice and grilled chicken breast salad. I was hanging out there one afternoon and they happened to play Lana Del Rey’s "Blue Jeans" over the sound system. I felt right at home – again, a sense of well-being – and that feeling always helps me to relax a little bit too.
LEON: That must be very cool and reassuring, hearing Lana Del Rey in a Beijing mall. The Chinese market is actually the largest denim market in the world right now, having overtaken Japan in 2010. China’s growth is huge in all markets, including art. Do you feel like it’s possible that the popularity of countries themselves are shifting as quickly as the popularity of everything else: like singers, nightclubs, artists, personal computing? Remember when Japan was big in the 80s? And then the bubble burst resulting in what is commonly called "the lost decade" or sometimes even "the lost two decades".
ISRAEL: Lana Del Rey in particular has experienced quick shifts in popularity – from her sudden rise to her very public fall after a rocky Saturday Night Live debut, to her powerful, phoenix-like reemergence from the ashes. And sure, the shifting popularity of a country is a real thing – we’ve seen this happen again and again. Japan, yes, the Czech Republic, Germany, and now I hear a lot about people going to Portugal. Some of these shifts I’ve felt more dramatically. In the 80s, growing up in LA, I definitely felt the massive popularity of Japan. Japanese investment resulted in massive real-estate development in 80s LA and yes, then the bubble burst. I remember going to Hawaii as a kid, and hanging out with Japanese kids on the beach. I went back a few years ago and the hotels that were once filled with Japanese tourists were now largely vacant.
LEON: Speaking of Lana Del Rey, in "Ride" she speaks the line, "I believe in the country America used to be." How do you interpret a statement like that?
ISRAEL: "Ride" was released after the SNL incident, and I can imagine that was a sensitive time for her personally. Lana is a child of the mid-80s, so I wonder which America she longs for. The one of her childhood, the earliest one she can possibly remember? I wonder if for her that America was really so different from the one we have today. I listen to her music a lot, and follow her music videos. In her work she draws references from a time she didn’t live through, an America of Marilyn and Elvis that she seems to be nostalgic for. I spoke about this very thing last night with John Kelsey, who made a distinction here between nostalgia and fantasy, which I agree with. Lana can’t really be nostalgic for the 50s – rather she has constructed a kind of fantasy nostalgia for an American past that she never knew. This is her vision.
LEON: Right, the fantasy is like nostalgia for nostalgia. I wonder if that impulse is representative of the way many of us experience cultural phenomena and the products of creativity and art generally. Often, I’ve found that the feeling I have when I’m most inspired is very similar to the sensation I associate with nostalgic feelings. I think it’s also related to what people feel when they experience loss, a feeling of grief but also an overwhelming sense of freedom and relief, lightness and immediacy. Both Chris Isaak’s "Wicked Game" and The Weeknd’s "Wicked Games" have this bittersweet mixture where what we are feeling most acutely is the moment passing us by, and I wonder if this kind of hyper-awareness of the passing moment is what we call nostalgia, and what brings artists closer to realizing that the consequence of every moment is the next moment, so to ever create something truly in touch is to be wholly immersed right now – to keep time at bay, to make the work timeless by using the feeling of nostalgia to resist nostalgia. If this is true, trends then come to represent the opposite of how they are commonly described. They can’t be truly of the moment because trends do not result from this peculiar conflict with the moment. They have no gravitas, no historical context, and they are experienced outside of this very particular struggle with duration. Only great works can accurately represent the moment.
ISRAEL: Yes, and trends capitalize off of these great works – wherever they are produced and whatever form they take. Trends are the transformation of these great forms into shells: they remove all of the weight and retain only the surface. They are lighter and more mobile, here today and gone tomorrow. And then there’s style. Style is a pulse that maps the course of our cultural flow by recognizing and reacting to the heartbeat of great art. Good style leaves trends to follow in the mainstream that is its wake. The great thing about style is that it knows how to improvise. If there’s no great-art beat to react to at any given point in time, style transcends itself, creates one, and continues to push on through.
LEON: Oh hell yes, sometimes style is the only course possible, and may even be preferable to great art because of its rigorous attention to detail and its uncanny ability to pull out those details into a totally new thing. Stylization is immensely compelling because of that precision and clarity. Styles don’t try to be anything other than what they are, and it is that very quality that makes them so phenomenal, so real. Speaking of style, Freeway Eyewear just collaborated with Barbara Kruger. Who’s next?
ISRAEL: We are doing our third collaboration with an incredible, inspiring artist but we haven’t announced the project just yet – at this point it’s top secret. The glasses will be ready in time for the holiday season.
LEON: And what do you think of Croakies [eyewear retainers]?
ISRAEL: Croakies are great! I have a pair … somewhere.
LEON: I haven’t looked at art lately because I’ve been in North Carolina, so much of my attention has been on design and the things that are around me that I can touch and feel and own. I know that a lot of the looking that people do is done on a screen or a secondary medium like a photograph online or in a magazine. I wonder what you think about the distinction between a work of art and the photograph of a work of art. In your opinion, does the photograph become a discrete work in itself? Not everyone who wants to see a work of art will see it, so what are they seeing? What are they "liking"? Are we all just really into photography after all since that’s how we often do our looking? And then how does this contribute to the development of a style as a creator and also to the development of taste as a viewer? Is it possible to develop an authentic, true taste without the tactility of experience?
ISRAEL: We now experience everyday life both physically and virtually. I make some of my art to be experienced virtually, through the computer screen, via the Internet. I also make things that are textured, volumetric, and engaged with ideas about space and scale as related to the human body – these works are made with a viewer in a gallery in mind. Because I work a lot with the scenic art department at Warner Bros. to make physical objects, there is an inherent crossing of borders in what I do. Scenic art, made in Hollywood, is meant to be seen through the lens of a camera. It’s activated by this kind of mediation. Hollywood props, which I use often in my work, are also meant to be seen through a lens. On the flip side, my selfportrait logo originated as a computer graphic. Only later did I figure out how to express it as a three-dimensional object, airbrushed onto a fiberglass panel. It was stretched out of the virtual and into the physical world. I believe that there is a fluidity between the two realms that can exist, and that an art practice can move between them. I personally don’t give preference to one realm over the other – I simply try to use the best platform possible to express an idea. Furthermore, I don’t feel any inconsistency in my work as it moves between the two. If I have developed a style, it has undoubtedly accepted this dualworld- system as a given. Another question: Is it possible to develop an authentic, true taste without Wi-Fi?
Jon Leon is an interior decorator and writer. He lives in North Carolina.
ALEX ISRAEL born 1982 in Los Angeles. Lives in Los Angeles. Exhibitions: Gagosian Gallery, Rome/Rom (with Kathryn Andrews) (2014); Oracular / Vernacular, MAMO, Marseille; Le Consortium, Dijon (solo); Carl Kostyál, Stockholm (solo); Self-Portraits, Peres Projects, Berlin (solo) (2013); Hammer Museum’s Venice Beach Biennial, L.A.; As it LAys, MOCA, L.A. / Reena Spaulings, New York / Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City (solo); Lens, LAXART, L.A. (solo); Thirty, Almine Rech Gallery, Paris (solo) (2012).