Art & Design

February 9, 2017

Alex Israel on Bret Easton Ellis

LA's best billboards, working with his hero and the cult of celebrity

  • Written by Samira Larouci
  • Photography by Flo Kohl

Alex Israel’s latest exhibition at Gagosian London sees the LA-born artist team up with iconoclastic novelist Bret Easton Ellis on a series of collaborative works. First shown (appropriately) at Gagosian Beverly Hills last year, the paintings and printworks layer text captions written by Ellis and superimposed onto stock images of sun-drenched California sunsets and aerial views of Los Angeles (some of which are purchased stockpile images and some of which have been painted and fabricated at Warner Bros).

Each of Ellis’s captions tease and feel like snippets of a larger story. “This isn’t a real relationship,” she told him, shrugging. “It’s showbiz” is juxtaposed next to the image of a closed heavy red velvet curtain, with the strangely prophetic caption “Can 50 million people be wrong? Probably.”

Amuse caught up with Alex after the opening to discuss his favourite films and how LA transforms you.

What was your first experience with a work of art?
It’s hard to say exactly but I have an early memory of seeing Claes Oldenburg’s Knife Ship II at MOCA Downtown when I was about 5. It’s a giant kinetic Swiss Army Knife and it completely expanded my notion of creativity. I remember getting one of those souvenir pens — the kind that has liquid inside it — and in this case the Oldenburg sculpture moved back and forth through the liquid when you rotated it. I still have the pen.

ISRAEL 2016, 50 Million People_Gagosian

ALEX ISRAEL & BRET EASTON ELLIS 50 Million People, 2016 Acrylic and UV ink on canvas 84 x 120 x 2 inches, (213.4 x 304.8 x 5.1 cm)

When did you first accept yourself as an artist?
Again, hard to say exactly. I remember finger painting in nursery school — it’s one of my earliest memories. But the first time I made art and was conscious of this action was probably around the same time as when I saw the Oldenburg ship at MOCA. My doodles and drawings and the forts and assemblages I would build in my bedroom probably started to take on more meaning for me after that. It wasn’t until I finished college, worked for a few years in the art world, and then made the decision to apply to graduate school that I fully accepted myself as an artist. And to be honest, I’m still not sure if I really do. “Artist” is a tricky word… when I think long and hard about it, I might prefer to use David Robbins’ term: Independent Imagination.

What’re some of your favourite a-typical LA spots to hang in?
I love The Bigg Chill, the frozen yogurt restaurant that my family opened in 1987, it’s under different ownership now but the frozen yogurt still tastes as good as it did when I was a kid. I also love walking around the property department at Warner Brothers, hiking at Will Rogers State Park, and getting an afternoon snack at Moon Juice on Melrose Place.

What are some of your favourite TV shows or movies?
TV: Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell, The Hills, Friday Night Lights, Game of Thrones and American Idol.

Movies: Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Clueless.

ISRAEL 2016, Showbiz_Gagosian

ALEX ISRAEL & BRET EASTON ELLIS Showbiz, 2016 Acrylic and UV ink on canvas 84 x 168 x 2 inches, (213.4 x 426.7 x 5.1 cm) All Artwork © Alex Israel and Bret Easton Ellis; images courtesy iStock.

What music do you listen to when driving around LA?
Popular music. This past year a lot of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Kanye, Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper.

A lot of people go to LA and transform themselves into who they want to be, how does that work when you’re born there – do you just switch social circles or just move away to rebrand yourself?
I think it’s probably more the other way around — my collaborator Bret Easton Ellis always says that it’s the city that transforms you into who you really are.

When did you first encounter Bret’s work, how did it reflect your perception of LA?
I read Less Than Zero as a college freshman, flying home to LA for the holidays—and this actually parallels the main character’s storyline in the novel. I felt incredibly close to it, it was like reading a readymade. Westwood, the neighbourhood I grew up in, was described exactly as I knew it.

What was your first conversation with Bret like?
It must have been around 2008 or 2009, before I interviewed him for Purple Magazine. Once I got over the starstruck, I remember us speaking at length about the 1980 Paul Schrader movie American Gigolo and the Kardashians.

Why do you think text-based artwork is historically so common amongst LA artists?
Text is such an important part of LA’s physicality. Driving around town here we’re constantly reading the landscape: street names, freeway exits, billboards, signs, theatre marquis and then of course, inside the theatres, the opening credits on the movie screen.

So what’s your favourite billboard you’ve seen recently?
I live right above the Sunset Strip, so I see a lot of Billboards. I know it’s not that recent, but a couple years ago there was one that really blew me away. For Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Inherent Vice, the title and the actor’s names were illuminated in neon. An image of Katherine Waterston lying across the length of the billboard on her stomach was motorized — she kicked her legs back and forth in the air. The image, its motion, and the neon — it was pretty mesmerizing.

Alex Israel / Bret Easton Ellis runs from 3 Feb to 18 Mar at Gagosian Davies Street.

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