Is Alex Israel for Real?
Sun, sincerity and simulacra in SPF-18
The campy, nostalgic, Hollywood-inspired works of young(ish) artist Alex Israel would not be out of place as the scenery for a nineties-California-themed party, yet they regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars – sometimes more – and he has had solo exhibitions in prestigious galleries globally. Israel’s first major success, in 2012, was As It Lays, a web series of talk show-style interviews with Hollywood big shots in which Israel, wearing his signature sunglasses and deadpan expression, posed seemingly random questions to the interviewees: “Are you a member of any museums?” “Do you skype?” “Do you believe in guardian angels?” The best known of his other works includes a series of enormous paintings of paradigmatic LA scenes which incorporate passages of text written by his collaborator, author Bret Easton Ellis, and were created in the Warner Bros. backlot. Working across different media – and moving with ease between art and business: he also founded Freeway Eyewear, a sunglasses brand which, he makes clear, “is not art … not everything that I do has to be art” – the net effect of Israel’s output is a kind of retro, pastel Americana. His latest work, SPF-18 (which, I think, is supposed to be “art”) is a star-studded, feature-length teen surf film released on iTunes in September 2017.
Despite the obvious success of this art world insider (Israel worked in art sales before becoming an artist himself), reviewers often struggle with a sense that buyers and enthusiasts are somehow being had, and most reviews are plagued by an underlying question: is the work an insightful commentary on our time or a vapid reflection of it? The answer, I think, is neither.
What confounds critics is Israel’s seeming sincerity. Although his work, which self-consciously echoes predecessors such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, seems so ironic, Israel is unswervingly insistent that it is celebratory rather than critical. When asked about As It Lays, Israel has strongly resisted suggestions that he deliberately selected interviewees whose stars had faded or that his intention was to expose these washed up celebrities and the system that elevated them, describing this, in one interview, as a “cynical view.” Instead, he wants the series to be interpreted as a celebration of the cultural history of Los Angeles (“our city”), and of the people who contributed to that history.
Likewise, his most recent project, SPF-18, could easily be misinterpreted as a critique of Hollywood film and television. To say that it trades in clichés is to state the obvious. From the cameo of Pamela Anderson running down the beach, to the wind blowing back the heroine’s hair as she stands on a balcony staring out to sea, watching SPF-18 is like watching a montage of every Los Angeles film and TV series you’ve ever seen – except the gritty ones – with a touch of suburban teen romance thrown in. The overt references to earlier films are also plentiful (Keanu Reeves’ character, for example, is named Johnny: presumably a nod to his role as Johnny Utah in Point Break).
I first encountered Israel in 2016 when I stumbled upon a solo exhibition of his work at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo. This included a trailer for SPF-18, which had not yet been completed. I remember the museum guide telling me with amusement how he would often see teenage girls reacting excitedly to the trailer, as if it was an actual film that they actually wanted to see. They didn’t get the irony, you see, the art. I nodded knowingly (not admitting that, given my penchant for lowbrow TV, I was quite keen to see – and enjoy – the film myself). But as I’ve become more familiar with Israel’s work, I now think that the teenage girls were probably closer to understanding Israel’s intentions than the museum guide.
Critiques of Hollywood as a false dream and product of capitalist culture, especially in light of the diverse and often downtrodden reality of Los Angeles, are so well-worn they scarcely require repetition. Given these deep problems with Israel’s subject matter, not to mention its superficiality, it is an understandable mistake to assume that Israel must be taking a critical stance: making a comment, unearthing ideology, exposing false consciousness. But he isn’t. His M.F.A. dissertation was essentially a polemic against what he calls “the obligation towards taking up some position of criticality,” against the assumption that art should “surgically ‘reveal’ (by cutting, slicing, lifting and peeling back)”; and an ode to what he calls the “buzz.” And his career, I think, can be read as a realization of the leanings expressed in this dissertation.
The buzz he talks about, a “resonant physical tingling, or bubbling,” is a clear rejection of the notion that any mediating authority or specialist discourse is needed to understand or enjoy cultural works. Individuals today are the “framers” of their own experiences, he argues, and “as framers we no longer have to be told how to see or experience something, nor do we want to be.” His personal tastes are unabashedly pop, but he ascribes this shamelessness to a generation: “people in my generation don’t have those hang-ups.” (At 34, a borderline Gen-Xer, Israel is only just, at a stretch, of the generation he claims to speak for, but let that not worry us.)
It’s not that Israel’s works seem unaware of the criticisms of their subject matter: they are steeped in a postmodern knowingness that is unavoidable for “his generation.” SPF-18 laughs at itself, but it does so lovingly. Israel sees the superficiality, the narcissism, the cliché, but asks that we still enjoy it, that we still find something of worth: not by unearthing hidden depths, but by viewing the same thing with different eyes.
At heart, Israel is a fan, and his art is a love letter: to Hollywood, to Los Angeles, and more broadly to the discredited American Dream. Because his subject isn’t the city (“our city”) itself, it is the dream of the place as represented in the American cultural imaginary. Collector and gallerist Adam Lindemann asks, “Am I a throwback to another era because I was looking for deeper meaning, even when there is none?” I think what both he and the guide in Oslo fail to understand is that the depth is not in the meaning but in the feeling. Israel is dead serious in his enthusiasm; his work is shot through with genuine affection for the very clichés it depicts. It is as though he wants to bottle the “buzz,” the feeling of possibility that Hollywood and its products inspire, a kind of cinematic hope – regardless of whether they are worthy of that feeling or whether they obscure more than they offer. He believes that in this cinematic hope there is still, despite everything, a kernel of something true, and that elusive kernel is what he’s after. His release of SPF-18 speaks volumes. It was screened in high school auditoriums across America, and students will be invited to make two- to three-minute documentaries about what inspires them in their daily lives, with the winners receiving grants to help them pursue their passions. Although it deploys the clichés of teen films, SPF-18 does not intend to expose teen culture; it aims to speak to and with it. It aims – and is this not itself a sign of sincerity? – to inspire.
Israel is not alone in his fatigue with so-called criticality. Many of the labels that fall loosely under the banner of “post-postmodernism” (e.g., metamodernism, the New Sincerity, repudiation of depth) grapple with this same fatigue, and as such Israel is undoubtedly part of a broader trend. But is he entitled to be post-critical? He is, of course, a privileged white man. But, more importantly, the dreamy pink-hued scenes he so lovingly depicts are populated, in fiction and in fact, by the privileged white few. There is arguably a reason his work is so popular among Hollywood insiders: it elevates the system of which they are a part. And by calling itself “art” allows a continued consumption of Hollywood’s false Gods that seems commendable, self-aware, even highbrow. This raises several pertinent questions: Does Israel’s art do anything other than feed Hollywood back to itself? In the context of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter do we really need a white man to rescue The Hills ? Is this just another veiled instance of white nostalgia?
These are all legitimate questions. Nevertheless, just as Israel believes that a critical approach to Hollywood, although valid, does not do it complete justice, I think that going straight for the somewhat obvious critical angles risks missing something important, especially if in doing so one dismisses Israel altogether. I felt a “buzz,” as he puts it, on first seeing his work, and have been trying to understand why. In this effort, I found myself re-reading Jean Baudrillard (who also, I discovered, perhaps not incidentally, still gives me a “buzz”). Although he has fallen somewhat out of intellectual favor, Baudrillard’s book America is strikingly prescient, and it addresses precisely the America with which Israel is grappling. Baudrillard’s basic contention is that, far from the American Dream being a poor imitation of American reality, American reality is a poor imitation of the American Dream. The simulacral is so foundational to what America means that this is where one needs to start if one is to understand America. As he puts it:
what you are presented with in the studios is the degeneration of the cinematographic illusion, its mockery …. Where is the cinema? It is all around you …. The American city seems to have stepped right out of the movies. To grasp its secret, you should not, then, begin with the city and move inwards to the screen; you should begin with the screen and move outwards to the city. (2010, 58-59)
Israel too believes this. In one interview he discusses the closure of the Hollywood Greyhound bus station, one of his favorite Los Angeles scenes, in a way that suggests its importance was always symbolic, not material: “It doesn’t exist anymore…. But that notion of the Hollywood of yore, that idea of showbiz, is in everything. It’s nowhere and everywhere.” Indeed, is there a more potent argument for the simulacral nature of America than Donald Trump, reality star-cum-property tycoon, a character who seems to have stepped off The Hunger Games movie set, becoming president of the country?
Los Angeles is in many ways the heart of simulacral America. Baudrillard writes about Los Angeles that “you are delivered from all depth there – a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a challenge to meaning and profundity… an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference-points.” (133-134) As such, in making Los Angeles the focus of all of his art, and the setting for SPF-18, Israel is not just addressing that city, the city of dreams, but America itself (simulacral America, that is).
It is a central tenet of SPF-18 that “real life,” “the movies,” and “art” are all a jumble. The film opens with a voiceover, the narrator (Goldie Hawn, it turns out) saying, “When you grow up in LA, real life and the movies can get a little mixed up.” Later, when a character reveals a multi-colored wetsuit that she has designed – the very same wetsuit that is an art piece in Israel’s art exhibitions – the guy she’s talking to responds, “Would you look at that, it’s art.” Another character muses, “Sometimes things feel more real on video than they do in real life, you know?” I could go on. The references to film or art bleeding into life are so frequent and hammy that it would be insulting to its audience if the point was to remind us that art and life aren’t really so distinct.
But that isn’t the point, not really. It’s the premise. Baudrillard argues that, whereas Europe still lives off “the vestiges of a moribund critical culture,” (133) a critical approach does not help us to better understand America: “If you approach this society with the nuances of moral, aesthetic, or critical judgement, you will miss its originality.” (70-71) “What you have to do,” he insists, “is enter the fiction of America, enter America as fiction.” (29) And entering America as fiction is, I think, exactly what Israel does. Returning to Israel’s stance against “criticality,” perhaps it not only expresses an exhaustion with postmodern position-taking and a desire for the lost possibility of simply liking things; but also, and more poignantly, is reflective of a Baudrillardian understanding that a critical approach is simply not best suited for attaining insight into what is distinctive about America. “Criticality” assumes an ultimate “real” against which one can judge an idea: it does not work as a method for approaching the simulacral, which you cannot stand outside of, but which is itself, as Israel insists, complex and meaningful.
If Baudrillard describes the “desert of the real,” a world of simulacra which “threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary,’” then Israel is arguably the poster child for the world of simulation. (1994, 2-3) Perhaps for the generation that Israel styles himself as part of, the “real” has receded altogether, and the only remaining option is to engage the simulacral sincerely. Israel does not seek to expose or get beneath the simulacral; he works within its parameters, among its signifiers and structures of meaning.
In Israel’s M.F.A. dissertation he observes of Los Angeles:
Freeways delineate this landscape. They carry bus-drivers that carry passengers that carry dreams. Most of these … drivers are wearing frames that rest perched on their noses. So am I. Sunglasses frame LA.
Baudrillard, by contrast, describes those same freeways as an “extraordinary spectacle of these thousands of cars moving at the same speed, in both directions … coming from nowhere, going nowhere.” (2010, 135) Although he urges that the only way to understand America is to enter into the fiction of it, Baudrillard can’t himself quite manage that: for him, the simulacral is still on some level empty, “coming from nowhere, going nowhere.” But for Israel the simulacral is full of meaning: the highways aren’t a spectacle of indifference, they are carriers of dreams.
Nicola Sayers is a writer and academic. She recently completed a PhD, about nostalgia in contemporary American literature and culture, at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is now working on her first book.