Alex Israel has consistently explored the vacuity of celebrity culture in his hometown, Los Angeles. His sculptures, installations and videos center on signifiers of this culture, from sunglasses to director’s chairs to celebrities themselves. In his ongoing “Property” project, Israel brings together various props rented from movie houses; as on a movie set, these props offer no narratives in themselves, but rather become meaningful through their combination and arrangement.
Lens, Israel’s recent installation at LAXART, consists of an 8-foot-tall sunglass lens made of UV-protective plastic. Frameless, it was the only object in a long, narrow room at LAXART and leaned against a back corner. From a distance, the work looks opaque, shiny and black. Up close, it becomes transparent and gray. Its delicate surface calls to mind works by Robert Irwin and DeWain Valentine. Unlike those works, however, Lens is not abstract. And Israel seems uninterested in the sensual experience that both other artists consider primary.
Sunglasses change the way we see, can block our eyes from others, and signify “cool,” “wild,” “sexy,” “rich,” “powerful” or “mysterious.” They are also a business for Israel. As an MFA student at the University of Southern California, Israel launched his own company, Freeway Eyewear. The trailer for his first video series, “Rough Winds” (2010), inspired by filmic stereotypes of disaffected, affluent Los Angeles youth, was full of enough Freeway product placement to effectively double as an ad campaign. It was displayed on a videotron along Sunset Boulevard during the summer of 2010 and received attention for its blend of art, commercialism and mid-’80s style.
Soon after, Israel developed the video series “As It LAys” (2012)—titled after Joan Didion’s famous L.A. novel Play It as It Lays (1970)—in which he adopts the persona of a talk-show host. Each short video features Israel’s character, speaking deadpan and dressed in an ill-fitting suit, asking a Los Angeles celebrity, such as Quincy Jones or Kato Kaelin, 20 random questions without ever stopping to pose a follow-up. There are almost no meaningful moments of connection in the videos, a condition that’s exacerbated by the host’s large sunglasses, which he never removes.
Lens continues Israel’s themes of celebrity culture and emptiness. Removed from the face, enlarged and placed in the proverbial white cube, the sunglass lens has a surreal presence, its suggestion of money and power having been amplified. And yet, it is curiously vacuous itself, offering a surface both reflective and transparent; the only meaning is that which viewers bring to it themselves.
PHOTO: Alex Israel: Lens, 2012-13, UV-protective plastic sunglass lens, 8 feet tall; at LAXART.