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Seven years ago, Alex Israel recorded As it Lays, a series of interviews with “iconic and influential” Angelenos in his studio at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.1 Sitting upright and still, any expression in his eyes hidden behind his Freeway sunglasses (his own brand), he asks random and unconnected questions to his celebrity subjects—to Marilyn Manson, “Did you have a childhood comfort object?”; to Jamie Lee Curtis, “Do you scrapbook?”; and to Christina Ricci, “What did you eat for breakfast this morning?” Israel repeatedly fails to respond or react to any of their answers, regardless of how convivial they are. These eight- to twelve-minute skits are as hilarious as they are baffling. Israel’s banal interview style is a Trojan horse for an interrogation of these lauded individuals. Seeing how a celebrity deals with his antics is far more revealing than the answers they provide. In some ways, these videos unmask Hollywood’s sleaze— how someone with power and money can have access to anyone—and here Israel inserts himself into this scheme. The interviewees generally prove kind and interesting, and Israel, who produced the videos a few years after graduating with his MFA from USC, becomes the center of attention. A celebrity in waiting.
Recently, As it Lays came back. Israel is older, has better hair, a new Giorgio Armani suit, and if it’s possible, an even more wooden approach to interviewing. The upgraded set resembles a Grecian-style living room with an oil-painted trompe l’oeil background; replacing the original faded, faux Breuer chairs are two regency style tub chairs purportedly snagged from a yard sale at Oprah Winfrey’s. The intro music is a classy, all-strings affair, rather than the synthy, saxophone-led ditty from Israel’s last installment, and the logo for the film has rebranded from a blocky, pop-art inspired silhouette of Israel to an elegant line drawing reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s brand from the 1950s.
Even the gallery got pimped. In 2012, esoteric Reena Spaulings Fine Art in the Lower East Side hosted the show; in 2019, it was swanky Greene Naftali in Chelsea.2 Walking down their alley off 26th Street, you could hear the audio from a new set of interviews being pumped into the industrial space. Alicia Silverstone mused on the gluttony of carnivals, Corey Feldman deliberated over his favorite Kardashian, and Paris Hilton reflected on loneliness and aging. You could press your nose up against the gallery window to gaze at the interviews of these passé starlets or enter the gallery via a giant profile of Israel cut out of the wall.
Inside, in addition to the empty As it Lays 2 set were five large oil paintings from Israel’s Self-Portrait series that hung around the room. Each an enlarged contour of his same profile, they depicted assorted scenes loosely representative of Israel’s life. The exhibition took its title from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, and these visages recalled the book’s protagonist, Maria, who describes her mind as a blank tape that records her encounters and experiences. Israel’s self-portraits reveal that his mind is somewhat vacuous, filled with scantily-clad females (photographed at a music festival in Self-Portrait [Coachella], 2019), automobiles (Israel stares back in his car’s mirror in Self-Portrait [Rear-view Mirror], 2018) and celebrity worship (a collection of signed framed photographs comprised Self-Portrait [Autographs], 2019).
Concealed in a back room were a group of works from Israel’s continued practice of utilizing props from well-known films. Five framed reproductions of the golden tickets from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory hung next to a mimicry of the idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark. All were glimmering objects that, in their respective movies, signified desire and reward. Israel’s use of these objects pointed flimsily to the tired notions of the artifice of Hollywood, or narratives around originality, authorship, and chance.
It is not by chance, however, that Israel decided to premiere both seasons of As it Lays in New York City. An emissary from the West Coast, he delights in perpetuating the myth and sheen of the City of Angels to its more cynical East Coast counterpart. His work enforces the stereotypes of the city by using the strategies and aesthetics reserved for commerce and Hollywood. In doing so, it is evident how little consequence both have, and so it’s difficult to read Israel’s work as anything other than trivial. Yet, as a Brit, and a self-confessed Americanophile, I find myself magnetized to it—the dream of Los Angeles that he propels in his work is the same one that I grew up believing in. If the first season of As it Lays taught us about celebrity and Israel’s privileged status, this season only seemed to repeat that narrative. In movie parlance a sequel generally represents some success for the first film, and it is anticipated that the second will develop ideas further (and act as a well-proven cash cow). What we learned from another season of As it Lays: with money and power comes more money and more power.
Rosa Tyhurst is a curator and writer based in the north of California and the south of the U.K.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 17.