Alex Israel - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Peres Projects, Berlin
    Private Collection

  • Catalogue Essay

    'I think L.A. has long held a special place in the collective imagination. Because so many of us have grown up watching television and movies that are filmed in L.A., we have an idea of the city that's tied to televisual and cinematic fantasy.'

    - ALEX ISRAEL, 2015

    Alex Israel produces radiant, wistful panels of colour that offer a flawless window into the rosy skies of his native Los Angeles. ‘Sky Backdrops’ like the present lot have their origins in his ‘Flats’ series, which arose through a connection to Warner Brothers studios. Although most backdrops are nowadays digitally printed, hand-painted scenery has a rich history that Israel was keen to draw upon. ‘Right after I finished graduate school, I had this idea about making portraits of people in Los Angeles and using the talk show as a format to do that. I started designing the talk show set, and as the background of the set, I wanted a giant L.A. twilight sky. I did some research and found out that there were just a few places in L.A. that painted backdrops, so I met with the scenic-art department here at Warner Bros. The painter I met was Andrew Pike, who had just painted the backdrop for Conan O'Brien. I thought, “Oh, wow, this is perfect! This is someone who actually paints backdrops for talk shows.” He agreed to paint the backdrop for me, and that's how the relationship began.’ (Alex Israel interviewed by Aram Moshayedi, Interview Magazine, 01/01/15).

    Israel’s coherent artistic practice encompasses everything from film projects to a commercially successful range of eyewear. He makes frequent reference to the vapid, catatonic sheen of decadent L.A. glamour: his interview series ‘As it Lays,’ which recalls Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, invokes the title of the seminal 1970 novel Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion, whose terse minimalism and emotional detachment set the precedent for deadpan L.A. cool. But Israel is motivated by affection, rather than distaste. His slices of distinctly West Coast sunshine are nostalgic, even campy in their sensibilities, playing with notions of prop and simulacrum.

    The present lot exemplifies the vibrancy of Israel’s work, blushing with gently tropical luminosity that speaks of swaying palm trees and endless sun-soaked freeways. Besides soft hints of diaphanous cloud, its surface is absent of any obvious figuration: as backdrop, it would be as at home on the Shakespearian stage as in Scarface. The shapes of Israel’s ‘Flats’ often hint at faux-classical portico, suggestive of the faded theatricality so quintessential to L.A.’s position in collective cultural memory, as well as the Spanish revivalist forms of Southern Californian architecture. Despite the less evocative outline of the present lot, this airbrushed apparition could hardly have come from anywhere else. It is an image of the sublime that is tired but not spent, retaining a lambent aura of glamour and anticipation.

    Although specifically local in genesis, Israel’s immaculate backdrops are more than a homage to Sunset Boulevard. He hopes to create joy, even aspiration, in an essentially utopian view of the power invested in universally recognised aesthetic trope. ‘Beyond its magical regionalism, for me, Los Angeles is America. Los Angeles is the place where the American Dream comes to life. We witness this on television, season after season. The American Dream is a powerful and moving thing. So much of the imagery that illustrates this dream is pure L.A. cliché. These clichés carry so much symbolic weight and meaning; they activate people's imaginations and inspire them to find a better way, and a better life.’ (Alex Israel interviewed by Aram Moshayedi, Interview Magazine, 01/01/15). The on-screen manipulations of cinema and its manipulations of us are accepted and embraced as holding positive potential. Israel’s sky appears as a divine portal to this ‘better life,’ both inviting and confounding in its obviously virtual promise; the absolute beauty of the sunblushed mirage transcends its ultimate unreality, and we are left nourished rather than frustrated, basking in the glow of studio lights.


Sky Backdrop

acrylic on canvas
274.3 x 487.7 cm (107 7/8 x 192 in.)
Signed and dated 'Alex Israel '13' and stamped 'MADE AT WARNER BROS. STUDIOS BURBANK, CA.' on the reverse.

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £506,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 12 February 2015 7pm