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California Dreaming: Alex Israel

17.07.2017. Art & culture

When young Los Angeles artist Alex Israel saw the magnificent Strelitzia nicolai, or giant white bird of paradise plant, which for years has graced the entrance to Le Sirenuse’s Champagne & Oyster Bar, he immediately knew he had found the subject for his 2017 Sirenuse Art Projects commission.

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Israel works in and with Los Angeles, immersed in the legends, images and messages of its film, fashion and media industries and its cult of celebrity. This is the artist’s milieu, his subject, and also in many ways his medium. For if Israel is a kind of art anthropologist, he’s also part of the tribe he studies.

Israel has his own eyewear line, Freeway, as sported by (among others) Jessica Biel and Justin Theroux. In 2012 he reinvented himself as a talk-show host, inviting a series of LA-based celebs minor and major (among them Cheryl Tiegs and Marilyn Manson) to appear on a digital chat show he created called As it LAys. He has even directed a film, the Malibu surf movie SPF-18, which aims to “challenge traditional definitions surrounding art, entertainment, and teen culture” (in the course of 2017, Israel plans to screen it in 30 US high-school auditoriums).

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Trompe l’oeil has always been a part of the Hollywood methodology. It’s there not only in the surface of the movies, where special effects, 3D and pin-sharp digital photography chase the illusion of realism in a fantasy world. It resides too in the celebrity machine, which creates substance out of the superficial and vice-versa. In reproducing Le Sirenuse’s real-life Strelitzia in 2-D painted form on the white staircase wall that leads from the lobby down to the Champagne Bar, Israel is engaging with the Hollywood dream machine and commenting on the representation and nature of reality via one of Los Angeles’ most iconic plants (this banana-like plant with its giant, paddle-shaped leaves is a familiar sight in southern California).

But there’s another layer to the game. Israel likes to work in a studio on the Warner Bros.’ Burbank backlot. The connection began in 2009, when the artist was working on his thesis project at USC's Roski School of Art and Design. Called Property, the ongoing concept consisted in renting a series of movie props from Warner Bros. and other studios, and displaying them as sculptures.

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The artist became fascinated with the painstaking artisanship behind the film studios’ painted and sculpted renditions of reality, and he was soon working on various projects with Warners’ craftsmen. Chief among these is the talented Andrew Pike, the last full-time scenic painter employed by a studio whose art directors increasingly turn to digital printing for fast, accurate backdrop work. Israel began to collaborate with Pike on a series of ‘Flats’ – arched stucco panels decorated with California sky and sunset scenes, which take their name from the traditional studio term for painted backdrops. It’s a small leap from the Flats to Amalfi Dr., 2017 the name given by Israel to the Strelitzia mural he conceived for Le Sirenuse, which was painted by Pike over four days in March, before Le Sirenuse reopened for the season.

To what extent is Amalfi Dr., 2017, Israel’s artwork, and to what extent is it Pike’s? The question would no doubt amuse both artists. The lines between creator, executor and producer of cultural artefacts have been fluid over the centuries, often being occupied by a multiplicity of subjects, from the bustling 15th-century Florentine bottega of Domenico Ghirlandaio to Andy Warhol’s Factory.

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Amalfi Dr. is a road in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, parallel for part of its length to Capri Drive. Cut across by Sunset Boulevard, it’s not far from a district of Italianate villas called Castellammare (home to the Getty Villa), that takes in, among other winding, leafy des-res streets, one called Revello Drive and another called Posetano Road – their erroneous spellings immortalised by some long-dead city planner with a poor grasp of Italian toponymy.

Visitors from the States would later dub the vertiginous SS163 Sorrento to Salerno coast road ‘Amalfi Drive’, applying the Californian homage, in a kind of linguistic back-formation, to the area that had inspired it. The name stuck. Later, in around 2005, a Strelitzia – one of a family that includes Los Angeles official flower, Strelitzia reginae – found its way into Le Sirenuse’s verdant indoor planting scheme. In 2017, an artist called Alex Israel saw it, and all of that receding-mirrors complexity, and beauty, ended up on the wall, where the frondy leaves and graceful tilting red stalks of this ‘bird of paradise’ plant dance up a stairway to heaven.

Photos © Roberto Salomone

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