(CURA.#22) “SELF PORTRAIT AS A CITY”

A conversation between Alex Israel and Gigiotto Del Vecchio

Gigiotto Del Vecchio In my recent trips to L.A. I always slept in a friend’s house on Mulholland Drive. Great place. Great landscape, great view. One of the iconic streets of Los Angeles. I was wearing Freeway sunglasses. It helped a lot…

Alex Israel I’m so happy to learn that you’ve been wearing them. I think I know the house you stayed in – a Richard Neutra, right?

GDV: Yes, exactly…

AI: That view of the Valley is perfect. I love that panorama’s newest addition – Hogwarts, the castle-like school from Harry Potter – an attraction that just opened at the Universal Studios theme park.

GDV: The Freeway Eyewear line is not part of your art, right?

AI: I started developing Freeway Eyewear just before I started graduate school. At the time, I didn’t know whether or not I would consider the project to be an artwork. It became clear to me, as things progressed, that it wasn’t art. It didn’t need to be. It could just be a brand… The sunglasses could just be sunglasses. That said, Freeway has definitely informed my artwork – and much crossover thinking has transpired.

GDV: I’ve been thinking about television as an obsolete technical instrument, one which could become, potentially, a site for art and creativity – a form within which artists could experiment, by modifying televisual convention. This is somehow already happening and your work is an example. Have you ever considered to show As It Lays on a tv palimpsest? If no why not?

AI: As It Lays was made for the Internet. I intend on continuing the series, and any new episodes I make will also be produced for the Internet. I think there’s a simple explanation for this, which is that more and more people are watching TV, televisual programming, online. Online distribution for homemade video projects, like As It Lays, is amazing both because it’s free – for both the creator and the viewer – and because anyone with Internet access can find it any time of day.

GDV: The mechanism by which, in As It Lays, you’ve subtracted your presence by wearing sunglasses asking generic, impersonal questions, and not engaging in back and forth discussion, seems to amplify or even mirror what your guests say, and the way they behave. You sort of force their attention or energy onto themselves. This reminds me of  nlp (neuro-linguistic programming) tools, like the meta-model, which is meant to help someone raise his or her level of self-consciousness.
Considering the strong relation that Los Angeles and California have to pseudo-science, and since Cali culture is your main subject, I was wondering: is your work informed by any linguistic – psychological theory? I googled neuro-linguistic programming and found that it’s often represented in image form by a profile head with rays of light emanating from the brain.

AI: When I was figuring out how to structure the As It Lays interviews, and how I would speak and ask questions and interact with my subjects, I was determined to become as invisible or removed as possible. I realized that my behaving in this way would be strange to viewers at first, and might even attract more attention to me than I wanted. But I also realized that if I was “the same” every time, in every episode, eventually I might be able to disappear and to really bring the total focus of the viewer’s attention to the subjects being interviewed. The goal with As It Lays was always to make portraits of my subjects, and even though I’m in the picture, asking the questions, this solution seemed to work out well. I think there’s a part of the way I perform in As It Lays that aligns nicely with a certain brand of Cali-chill-detachment. I wasn’t consciously considering linguistic or psychological theory at the time; I’d say my approach was more intuitive.

GDV: I read that your favorite time during the day is spent driving around L.A. in your car. I think it’s interesting how your recent Self-Portraits have started to contain L.A. landscape pictures within them, once again emphasizing a strong identification with the city. There are also those that show you in your studio environment, one of you signing your work, another taking a selfie…

AI: Yes, a number of the new self-portraits contain L.A. or Southern Californian landscape imagery. And a lot of this imagery is the kind that’s floating around somewhere in my head.  I’ve been working, for the past two years, on a teen surf movie called SPF-18, so I guess you could say I’m in a California state of mind. I’ve been collecting images as references, ideas and inspiration for the movie. I’ve done all kinds of research and location scouting, taking photos along the way. A lot of these images I’ve collected have made their way from my imagination, onto my camera’s memory card to the computer screen and eventually onto the painted surfaces you’re describing. A group of three that I presented together in my show at The Huntington all depict me, within the frame of my profile. There’s me standing in a satin Dodger’s jacket at the opening of my first show of self-portraits, me taking a selfie in the studio, and me signing the back of another self-portrait. They were all intended to deal less with my thinking towards SPF-18, and more with classical (self)portraiture – the artist as seen through the optical device (the selfie), the artist in the studio (signing the back), and then me in a silky, shiny jacket, which was specifically meant to refer to the way in which reflective fabric was such a key element in traditional European portraiture (it specifically references Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, which is in the Huntington’s collection).

GDV: You can be a colored logo, or portrayed while signing the back of a work, but you’re also identifying as the landscape, in Self Portrait (City Lights) from 2014, for example, or as a beach in Malibu, with the Paradise Cove pier jutting out into your headspace, a flock of seagulls flying across your forehead. You appear to be making a more poetic, fragile identification with the city.

AI: I do identify with the city. I’m a product of the city, having been born and raised in L.A., and having lived in L.A. almost all my life. I both experience and think about the city endlessly – it provides me with constant inspiration. As for these new self-portraits you’ve mentioned, well, it felt very natural to paint L.A. landscapes into my head: I simply decided to illustrate what I’m thinking about and looking at within the profile-shaped panels. I like to think of these works as being very direct.

GDV: W magazine defined you as Hollywood’s most clever critic and also its biggest fan… 

AI: I’m sure there are bigger die-hard fans out there – but how does one measure fandom? And I’m sure there are bigger critics too. In fact, I always say that I don’t consider my position to be a critical one. Whenever I bring anyone to Warner Brothers, to the studio for a behind-the-scenes look at how we produce my work, I make a point to explain that I don’t want to be the artist standing on the perimeter of the Hollywood system, pulling back the curtain with the intention of revealing its grand manipulative powers. I think we all already know that Hollywood manipulates us – we know this because we are granted constant access to our favorite entertainers through social media and what they tell us! We all know what Photoshop can do, and I think everyone knows that reality TV is pretty much scripted, or at least heavily edited and “produced.” I’m drawn to the magic of Hollywood, to the stardust that attracts us – against all better judgment – to suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride. I want to be as close to Hollywood as possible, to capture some of this magic, to try to harness some of this stardust into my work…

GDV: What are you working on right now, what are your next projects and exhibitions?

AI: An exhibition in Beverly Hills at Gagosian Gallery that coincided with the Academy Awards just came down. We showed a collaborative body of work that I made with Bret Easton Ellis – text paintings. We’re preparing “Part Two” of the exhibition for next January, 2017, in London. I’m also finishing up a couple of new works for an exhibition that opens this summer in Oslo, at the Astrup Fearnley Museum. I’m making new sculptures and paintings for that show, all of which relate to SPF-18. And then there’s the movie itself, a feature-length teen surf drama, which centers around the lives of four eighteen-year-olds who end up spending the summer after high school graduation together in Malibu, while housesitting for Keanu Reeves. Once the movie is finished, I’m planning to distribute it by taking it to high schools, for special screenings in auditoriums and gymnasiums. I wanted to make an artwork for teens, and I figured I may as well take it directly to them.