Alex Israel reflects on Hollywood, the Instagram era and West Coast myths

From Mulholland Drive to Griffith Park, the artist opens a portal to his native Los Angeles in a new exhibition of self-portraits at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill

Installation view of Alex Israel’s ‘Always On My Mind’ at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill, London
Installation view of ‘Always On My Mind’ at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill, London. © Alex Israel. Courtesy of Gagosian
(Image credit: Lucy Dawkins)

If you were passing Gagosian’s Davies Street outpost in 2017, you could hardly have missed Alex Israel’s prints, blown up in the gallery’s windows like advertisments. Emblazoned across one stock photograph were the words: ‘Can 50 Million People Be Wrong? Probably.’ The exhibition – a collaboration with the writer Bret Easton Ellis – captured the essence of the cinematic language Israel is known for, dramatic and charismatic, and inspired by his perpetual, dichotomous muse, Los Angeles.

Almost three years later, Israel has returned to London, this time on his own, and in his own image. On view at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill until mid-March, ‘Always On My Mind’ is dedicated to the body of self-portraits that has played a persistent role in Israel’s practice for almost a decade. Cut from panels of fibreglass and painted with airbrush, they recall Hollywood studio props – little wonder, given the Los Angeles native’s previous collaboration with Warner Bros Studios in the last ten years.

Self portrait on wall

© Alex Israel. Courtesy of Gagosian

(Image credit: Lucy Dawkins)

While many artists prefer to subdue the influence of their personal world in their art, Israel instead uses cut-outs of his profile to not only delineate his physical self, but to remind us of the context that frames his works: the perspective that’s present in art but isn’t often as directly discernible. Israel explains, ‘I just think of myself as a context... and that’s where my Self-Portrait comes into play. It has become a kind of logo for this imagined context of me.’ In fact, the first Self-Portrait that Israel made was intended to be the logo for his 2011 web series As it Lays, in which he interviewed many of Los Angeles’ best loved celebrities.

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American artist Alex Israel, photographed in his LA studio

(Image credit: Niall O’Brien)

Using himself as a context is a clever tactic for addressing the idea that all art is essentially a self-portrait, and in fact what Israel gives us is everything but the machinations of the personal inner world. From Wheel of Fortune to a view from the Griffith Observatory, these are open-ended portraits of what makes a person, fragments and clues but not the whole picture, connected to a wider landscape rather than intimate.

At the start of his career, Israel worked for artist John Baldessari, who passed away this month. They remained close. And you can trace the influence of Baldessari, for example, in the repetitious coloured dots faces he made in the 1980s and the formulaic structure of Israel’s Self-Portraits. But then, Baldessari would have certainly approved of that, once saying (opens in new tab): ‘I think art, if it’s meaningful at all, is a conversation with other artists.’

Whether it’s in pithy citations pasted across a window that shout to the street, a talk show with celebrities from his community, or Self-Portraits as a window to the world – conversation is exactly what Israel’s work is about. 

Installation view of Alex Israel’s ‘Always On My Mind’ at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill, London

© Alex Israel. Courtesy of Gagosian

(Image credit: Lucy Dawkins)

Self-Portrait (Wheel of Fortune), 2017, by Alex Israel, acrylic on bondo and fibreglass

Self-Portrait (Wheel of Fortune), 2017, by Alex Israel, acrylic on bondo and fibreglass. © Alex Israel. Courtesy of Gagosian

(Image credit: Jeff McLane)

Alex Israel’s limited-edition cover for Wallpaper’s February 2020 issue

Alex Israel’s limited-edition cover for Wallpaper’s February 2020 issue (W*251) – available to subscribers

(Image credit: press)

INFORMATION

‘Always On My Mind’, 16 January – 14 March, Gagosian Grosvenor Hill. gagosian.com (opens in new tab)

ADDRESS

Gagosian
20 Grosvenor Hill
London W1K 3QD

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Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.