Los Angeles-based artist Alex Israel makes art for our celebrity-obsessed age—but does it run any deeper than that?
One minute Alex Israel is discussing the work of French conceptual artist Duchamp and the next he’s fangirling over Oprah. And he’s not joking. Los Angeles—and the sometimes shallow, celebrity-worshipping culture that comes with it—inspires all of Israel’s art, which regularly features palm trees, beaches and other cliched images of California.
Israel’s slick paintings and videos have won him fans all around the world—not least on Instagram, where he currently has 87,000 followers. But critics wonder whether there’s something darker lying beneath the glossy surface of his paintings.
Is Israel’s art a cynical look at Los Angeles life (and, by extension, the wealthy collectors who snap up his candy-coloured canvases paying homage to the city)? Or is Israel’s work a genuine celebration of the City of Angels? At the opening of his exhibition at Gagosian in Hong Kong, we try to find out.
You previously worked at Sotheby’s and in sales at leading galleries. A W magazine article about you referred to this and said: “the line between high art and salesmanship has never been blurrier”. Does it bother you when people use words like “salesmanship” or “branding” in relation to your work?
Branding provides valuable tools for communication in today’s world. Los Angeles is a brand, I’m a brand, and my Self-Portrait is a logo. Using this language in my work allows me to speak across borders and cultures and I don’t have any hang-ups about that at all.
Talking of brands, your Hong Kong show marks the global launch of your new clothing line: Infrathin. Why have you branched out into fashion?
Infrathin is just clothes. It’s not art. It’s just another project I wanted to do. I’ve been asked to do museum exhibitions and when we do we always make something for the gift shop. And I just kept thinking ‘why can’t I make something for the gift shop that I actually want to wear?’
So I started this project to make a line of casual clothing that I would like to wear. It’s unisex. It’s all made in Los Angeles. For me, it’s really exciting and interesting to go outside of the art context and to learn by doing other things. And there are certain elements of my work that become part of the design—like the wave t-shirt.
All of your paintings on display in Hong Kong are of the same wave that appears on that t-shirt. Beyond being symbolic of Los Angeles culture, what does the beach personally mean to you?
It means the place I am from. I grew up at the beach—sand, surf and sunsets—and with beach culture defining, to some extent, the freedom of LA life. The beach is also a dream—Baywatch and The Endless Summer come immediately to mind.
Knowing a beach is nearby gives me a sense of well-being: that there’s a place I can go if I need to wiggle my toes in the sand, and that opportunity is always out there on the horizon.
You’ve been very open about being inspired by Oprah, reality TV and shows like Baywatch. What are you watching at the moment?
I still watch American Idol, although the season just ended. I love watching the lives of the contestants transform, voting for my favourites and getting to be a part of their journeys.
I’m also watching Westworld, Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Game of Thrones. Each of these shows has such amazing characters.
Alex Israel: New Waves is on from May 24—August 11 at Gagosian, 7/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong. Find out more at gagosian.com