In Los Angeles, it was Oscar week everywhere, even at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. But Bret Easton Ellis and the artist Alex Israel were dressed like a couple of college roommates who just rolled out of bed for brunch. Israel was in a denim shirt, denim joggers, and a pair of heather gray Nikes; Ellis wore Adidas pants, a black hoodie, and Asics. They were there to discuss their collaborative exhibition a few hours before it opened on Thursday night to a stream of A-listers.
Israel casually leaned against a beam in the gallery; Ellis sauntered back from the bathroom. Around us in the gallery were what can be generously called paintings (that's what they call them, anyway): stock photographs printed on canvas with glib flash fiction painted over them. They come across as dramatic and mysterious, stacked on the wall like the storefronts and billboards above Sunset Boulevard. There is something desperate about the stories they tell, but also glittery with promise as they look out over Mulholland Drive.
Israel led the discourse. He remarked that art incorporating text is a fundamental concern for L.A. artists. Furthermore, that their show is an analogue to John Baldessari’s own image-and-text exhibit now up at Sprüth Magers, the first show at the London gallery's new L.A. outpost.
“I used to intern for him, you know,” said Israel. “I told John that he was a big inspiration for these works, obviously. So was Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger, Raymond Pettibon, Larry Johnson — all artists in this city who used text as a foundational part of their work. I think it’s a really obvious thing for people to use when they live in Los Angeles, because you see the signs while driving down the freeway, and you see the credits rolling on the movie screens, and you see the billboards on Sunset. And I always wanted to make work that incorporated text, because it’s part of our culture, but I never knew how. And then it occurred to me that maybe I’m not a writer, so if I collaborated with a writer it would really open things up.”
So Israel went straight to his favorite writer, the man responsible for The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho and even a maligned Lindsay Lohan comeback vehicle, Paul Schrader's The Canyons. In 2010, he interviewed Ellis for Purple and then hosted him on his talk show As It LAys. Perhaps the artist's most enduring work, As It LAys features Israel, completely deadpan and in dark sunglasses, asking banal questions of guests like Rachel Zoe and Phyllis Diller: “As a child, did you ever run away from home?” (For the record, Ellis did “many times.”)
Though Ellis is often associated with New York, he is a quintessential L.A. writer, a native who first came to prominence for skewering its young elite in novels like Less Than Zero — and he seems to be getting a kick out of this foray into the art world, which he’s also mocked in the past in his novels.
Over the past year and a half, Ellis and Israel have ping-ponged emails and mock-ups. They sat down and edited their favorites, until 15 individual works and one diptych (plus three Israel self-portraits, upstairs in the gallery) emerged as worthy of exhibiting. "The paintings turned out so much better than any ideas that I might’ve had in my mind," Ellis said. "They’re just stunning, so, yeah, it is surreal, but in a good way."
As Ellis energetically paced the gallery, Israel sat still, seemingly relaxed. But it was the artist who admitted to nerves. He said it was his first-ever solo show at a commercial gallery in L.A., which so shocked me that I had to fact-check it. (It's true.) In L.A., Israel is ubiquitous — I could hardly remember an event where I failed to spot him.
I asked Israel if they mean for the paintings to be read individually, as micro-stories, or as a larger drama. “The works were selected so that there were evocative things that might happen with two works hung next to each other,” he explained. “But that said, those two works were not made to be necessarily hung next to each other.”
The existence of a double life is a particular Israel obsession. In one painting, an image of a grove of Washingtonia robustas (those very tall palm trees) is covered with the words: “Noah thought of the possibilities of his upcoming double life — in Palm Springs, on the beach in Venice, on Instagram — feeling awesome.” Israel pointed out several others that play with the theme, including the diptych, which is two stories that place a subject in the Valley ordering “a double.”
“[The double life] seemed like the most apropos theme to introduce to this project, because we are two individuals making one art project," said Israel. "Also, because it seems like that idea is a really big part of the culture of Los Angeles. You come here, you change yourself, and you become the person that you always dreamed of.”
By now, Ellis had his arms crossed. It turned out he had a slightly different take: “I believe that, yes, people come out here to reinvent themselves, and they ultimately do to a degree, but I also think that L.A. kind of forces you to become the person you really are,” he said. “There’s just something about the geography and the harshness of the business — you can become this other person that everyone is yearning to be, but it mostly doesn’t work out that way. Ultimately, you have to face the facts. I think these people [in the paintings] are in transit in a way. They are in these two lives, but they’re in transit, and they’re going to land someplace else.”
This apparent friction was, in fact, what ignited their collaborative process.
“I came from a much darker place,” Ellis said. “Not for all of them, but for a lot of them. So when I would present [the stories], Alex would say, ‘This too dark. This is not pleasant.’ What I like about them is that they [ended up] so viewer-friendly in a way.”
“They’re not without darkness,” Israel said.
“That is true," Ellis replied. "I think we balanced each other out a little. I think I drew Alex a little bit more closer to my darker vision, and then he brought me to a more ironic, playful space.”
“No. I don’t like the word ‘ironic.’”
“These aren’t ironic, you’re right.”
“And I don’t think that they’re ‘playful’ either,” Israel said.
“A little,” Ellis retorted.
“No! I think that they’re really studied," Israel shot back. They continued their Oscar and Felix routine for a while longer, bantering about their work together, about semantics, about their clashing outlooks in life, until finally Ellis seemed to let Israel win the spat.
"I think that the answer to your question is that we have different starting points, and we meet in the middle, and that’s how the work gets made," Israel said, turning to me. "Bret comes from a darker perspective, and I come from a more optimistic perspective, and we have tried to merge those things. That’s what makes the collaboration so successful. I think to imply that they’re not rigorous is wrong.”
“I’m not implying that at all,” Ellis said.
“When you use the word ‘ironic’ or ‘playful,’ it’s not good.”
“Yeah, no, I get it.”
While the paintings themselves are not ironic, the fact that Ellis writes about the kinds of people who walk through the doors of Gagosian, often mockingly, does have an irony to it.
“You’re asking, more or less, if some of my characters walked into this gallery, how would they react?" Ellis said. “Well, I don’t know. That’s a good question. Look, that’s very meta, the idea that the characters in the paintings might be wandering around the gallery because of where we are, in Beverly Hills, on the West Side. It’s a provocative question.”
Israel gave a more measured answer.
“I think that part of the work is that this show is happening in this space at this time,” he said. “We’re at Gagosian, and this is Oscar week, which is traditionally the gallery's most star-studded opening event. Hollywood comes together with the art world in a very specific way. And because this work is about Hollywood, and it’s about those aspects of Los Angeles culture that are exemplified by this place and this time-slot, it’s a marriage of work and context. It really is the complete and total experience of it.”