The Huntington’s latest exhibit, Alex Israel at The Huntington, mixes European classics with the contemporary works of Israel, who draws from the iconic and fame-obsessed culture of Los Angeles and Hollywood for inspiration in this stimulating exhibition.
BY: Sara Smola
Photos: Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
The Huntington ventures into the contemporary with their latest exhibition Alex Israel at The Huntington (currently on view until July 11). Though Israel is a young 30-something, his accomplishments suggest a man twice his age. It is safe to say, judging from Israel’s eclectic output and evolving interests—which include an interview talk show, films and exhibitions—that this ambitious visionary is only just beginning in his artistic endeavors.
Showcased in The Huntington Art Gallery, the former residence of esteemed patrons, Henry and Arabella Huntington, Israel’s visual commentary on Hollywood and popular culture has found an appropriate, albeit temporary, home. Israel’s avant-garde painted and sculptural works are thoughtfully incorporated among The Huntington’s world-renowned European collection in this visually engaging intervention. “It sounds kind of aggressive but ‘intervention’ in our understanding means that rather then a room curated with a series of objects—that would be an installation—these are objects that are inserted throughout the house in ways that we hope are thought provoking,” explains Chief Curator of European Art at The Huntington Catherine Hess of the collaborative exhibit.
For those who have visited The Huntington in the past, they will discover a few unexpected additions to the historic home, tucked among the sculptures and paintings of the past. “The element of surprise is really part of this,” Hess explains, “I don’t want the museum experience to sound like an amusement park but it has to be enriching and delighting and stimulating; it has to be all of those things and this is one way of pushing a new direction.” Imagine a cup of soft serve in a Styrofoam cup among priceless pottery, Israel’s Maltese Falcon camouflaged among Renaissance bronze sculptures and you’re only just beginning to understand Israel’s intense concepts and The Huntington’s curatorial mastery that awaits.
Both the artist and institutional location speak for themselves, yet this exhibit provides a unique way to experience the dichotomous styles in a fresh context that is guaranteed to strike a dialogue on the comparative power of works past and present. “Alex had a variety of museum exhibitions in white boxes; I think, the context of the Huntington creates something special and people should take advantage of that,” says Hess. “It’s more than the sum of its parts—each one is different singularly but when they’re placed together there is something really exciting going on between the two.” Indeed, the works build on each other, allowing visitors a once-in-lifetime viewing experience within the manor’s walls. In the particular case of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s life-size bronze Diana the Huntress, Israel’s Untitled (Flat) is a pink-orange starburst shape (reminiscent of a comic book design) that hangs on the wall behind Diana, providing a three-dimensional viewpoint of the sculpture and calling to mind a superhero—while Hess brings the conversation full circle by reminding us of the mythological tradition from which superheroes were originally derived.
As well as conversations waiting to be had, there are connections to be made and deeper meanings to uncover. Israel’s keen wit is seen in his double-entendres like In-N-Out, the site-specific mural designed by Israel, which Hess says is intended to, “bring the outside in.
There’s a nod to In-N-Out as the fast food company with one of the cups there next to the trash receptacle. Everything here is really a portrait of something in the gardens, including The Huntington waste receptacle.”
One of Israel’s self-portraits (that by no coincidence is just around the corner from Blue Boy) paints the artist—in a bright blue jacket emblazoned with “Dodgers” across the chest—as a modern day Blue Boy. “It may seem audacious to put himself in comparison with [Thomas] Gainsborough’s Blue Boy but what we have to consider here is the cult of fame and celebrity and Blue Boy is a spectacular painting but it is in our most famous painting because of its celebrity. It was sold for the highest price at the time in 1922 and there’s a whole cult of celebrity around it and is really what is linking these two in a playful way,” says Hess.
Israel’s fascination with the L.A. lifestyle of celebrity calls to mind another innovative mind—Pop icon Andy Warhol. Though Israel’s works are fully recognized in their own right, like Warhol, they are drawn from his interpretations of the Hollywood lifestyle and the celebrity culture. But, below the seemingly shallow surface of an infamous town where nothing is what it seems, Israel’s brilliant works spark an engaging social commentary among viewers with his reoccurring motifs of Hollywood and its celebrity culture that are best exemplified by L.A.’s signature symbols of sunglasses, sunsets and stucco that appear throughout the exhibit.
Israel’s nod to branding is seen throughout the exhibit, specifically in his self-portraits, calling to mind Warhol’s own use of common household brands like Campbell’s Soup. In the same vein, Israel speaks to the millennial generation with a spotlight on popular brands like New Balance and Sharpie, as well as Los Angeles sports themed apparel. “Since The Huntington is perhaps best known for its collection of 18th-century British portraits, it was just natural to include his self-portraits in this exhibition,” says Hess of Israel’s portraits intermingled on the walls with The Huntington’s acclaimed European works. “He did a lot of self-portraits; he believes in branding himself. It’s not so much making him famous but creating his brand so that people can recognize him.”
For those with an affinity for contemporary art, this exhibit is a must-see. And even if you don’t necessarily share that attachment, the melding of both artistic styles may give you a chance to be moved by a new, unexpected association. Hess explains that though The Huntington will remain firmly grounded in its roots as a distinguished institution of European art, Alex Israel at The Huntington is a chance for visitors to explore and broaden their artistic horizons—whether it’s discovering the old masters or Israel’s intervention. “I think it’s a wonderful way of encouraging new audiences to visit The Huntington. We have a very committed, very devoted crowd who comes and we would like to expand that. The [museum] experience has to be enjoyable and it shouldn’t be like a history lesson but should make your brain pop a little—make it think. And this kind of exhibition really does those things—it’s entertaining, interesting and it makes you think. We’ll never install contemporary art here on a permanent basis but periodically, to install things of this kind, I think, are quite provocative and fun.”