SPF-18, released via Netflix and iTunes, is the first feature-length film by the Los Angeles-based artist Alex Israel (b. 1982). The plot, in the form of a coming-of-age drama, centers around four eighteen-year olds who find themselves holed up in Keanu Reeves’s Malibu beach house the summer after high school graduation. Their futures, longings and desires are shared and questioned, as iTunes’ synopsis hints: “School’s out, and eighteen-year-old Penny think she’s got her life all figured out with heartthrob surfer boyfriend Johnny…until a mysterious musician comes to town and changes everything…” The film’s narrator (Goldie Hawn) comments on the actions quite fittingly: “When you grow up in L.A., real life and the movies can get a little mixed up.”
Hollywood and its popular culture drive Alex Israel's artistic practice. His works reflect on Los Angeles (his hometown), its film industry, cult of celebrity, and the promise of the American Dream. Israel adopts its instruments and modes as artistic forms: the web-series, the online talk show, movie-studio-made flats and backdrops, cinema props, and now a fully realized teen movie. At Kunstraum Innsbruck, he presents his latest series: Waves, alongside the film SPF-18, which will have its Austrian premiere on Saturday, March 16, at 11:00 a.m., at Leokino 1, followed by a Q&A with the artist.
For Israel, the motivation behind SPF-18 is to engage with a teen audience. “The movie was built around the idea that creativity can help you find your voice. (...) Each of the characters follows a creative path, which helps him or her evolve and make the transition from youth into adulthood,” he explains. Before releasing the movie on Netflix, Israel visited numerous public high schools on a tour across America. He presented the film to students, and spoke with them about art and the creative process.
Israel co-wrote the films’s story with screenwriter Michael Berk, who co-created the original Baywatch television series. While the film’s cast includes up-and-coming actors Carson Meyer, Noah Centineo, and Bianca Santos, it’s the icons of the eighties and nineties—Pamela Anderson, Keanu Reeves, Molly Ringwald and Rosanna Arquette—whose presence in the film connects it once again to Baywatch, surf, teen and the young adult films of Israel’s adolescence. SPF-18 was shot at Harry Gesner's iconic Wave House in Malibu (built in 1957). Its peculiar wave shape later influenced the design for the Sydney Opera House (built between 1959 and 1973 by Jørn Utzon). The film’s soundtrack is stacked with 80s pop hits, from “Hungry Like The Wolf” by Duran Duran (Israel worked with the band on the cover design for their most recent studio album), “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles, “True” by Spandau Ballet, and “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac.
The exhibition at Kunstraum Innsbruck focuses on colour variants of a stylized wave graphic. Hand or glove-like, the contour of Israel’s wave reminds us of the 19th century Japanese woodcut “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai. It also carries deliberate reference to Pop Art, and the familiarity of a surf-lifestyle-brand logo (i.e. Quicksilver or Billabong). Each wave panel is cast in resin from a hand-sewn version made of neoprene (and stretched like canvas around a square frame). Those familiar with SPF-18 will recognize the wave graphic from Johnny’s [Noah Centineo’s] animated lucid dream sequence, and again from the moment when Johnny uses the wave from his dream as inspiration for an album cover design for his new friend Ash. Each wave, presented in either a two or four-foot-square format, is rendered in a unique colorway that connects back to the film and its palette of Malibu sunsets, pastel interiors and the Pacific Ocean.
Alongside Israel’s Waves are two sculptures, each an empty black wetsuit, cast in aluminum and formed to the shape of the artist’s missing body (both are titled: Self-Portrait (Wetsuit), from 2016). For the film, Israel designed similar neoprene suits for his characters to wear during a group surfing sequence. Exhibited together with the Waves, the Wetsuits’ hollow forms reinforce the sculptural qualities of their vibrant counterparts.
In his online talk show As It Lays, titled after the 1970 novel Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion and released on YouTube in 2012, Israel interviewed all types of celebrities, including movie producer Jon Peters (e.g. Batman, 1989), TV writer, director and producer Darren Star (Melrose Place, 1992-1999, Sex and the City, 1998-2004), novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, 1991), reality TV star, fashion designer and model Whitney Port, and the late British-born LA-based hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. Israel asked magazine publisher Larry Flynt where he bought his clothes, music producer Quincy Jones what he does to stay healthy, and actor Steven Dorff whether he was right- or left-handed. He asked Christina Ricci to share her thoughts about online shopping, and whether she would change anything about the ten commandments, and he asked the musician Marilyn Manson what drink he orders when going to a bar. Israel designed the talk-show set in the style of late-eighties-early nineties morning shows, with the help of the design studio and scenic painting departments at Warner Brothers.
Israel’s Self-Portraits, painted in airbrushed acrylic on fiberglass panels in the shape of his profile, appeared immediately thereafter. The artist’s graphic likeness had already featured in the opening credits sequence of As it Lays, and this logo-like repetition (or branding strategy) clearly indicated that Israel’s artistic practice would be closely linked to the way Hollywood culture self-promotes, cross-brands, and blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction.
Alex Israel received his B.A. in 2003 from Yale University, and his M.F.A. in 2010 from the University of Southern California, Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles. Israel’s works are in the public collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Solo exhibitions include Le Consortium, Dijon (2013); Alex Israel at The Huntington, The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Garden, California (2015); Sightings: Alex Israel, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas (2015–16); #AlexIsrael, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo (2016); and Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings, Jewish Museum, New York (2016–17).