Reena Spaulings, New York
Closed April 8
by Travis Diehl
The set is the color of an L.A. sunset filtered through two decades of bad TV: a pair of airbrushed pink tombstones behind a couple of bland chairs atop a beige carpeted stage. Towards the front of the Reena Spaulings showroom, which is itself a low plywood platform, are two couches, two more chairs, two fake potted palms, a wedge-shaped table, a crystal jar of Andes mints and a flatscreen television suspended from the ceiling, As It LAys on repeat. Nested in this simulacrum, Israel's subject is no real city, but a fantastic montage of palm trees, cars and surfers—not Los Angeles, but a veritable “L.A.” Similarly, artist and gallery would love for this to be “portraiture,” but who are they kidding? This is itself a ploy for some requisite art-historical relevance, as transparent as any of the rest.
According to Art in America columnist Chris Kraus, Israel prepared for his role as talk show host by obsessively watching Oprah Winfrey. This is as revealing a statement as any. His episodes are not so much interviews, far from conversations, but rather a stream of twenty unrelated questions chosen at random and read from cards—more quiz show than talk show. Israel just sits there, in his suit, green tie and ever-present sunglasses (from his own Freeway line of designer (artist) eyewear); he might as well sleep through their answers—and what would be the difference? But maybe this is the way TV instructs you to converse—that is, unburdened by engagement. Each new question is like a listless jab at a remote control. Questions and answers pass each other by, fluttering to the sand-colored carpet, as they “LAy,” like golf balls sprinkled on a rooftop driving range. The interview with Rick Rubin, for example, barely lasts five minutes; his longest answer is three words. This corpselike passiveness is this show's most striking aspect. That, and the fact that seemingly anyone with enough “connections” (apparently the cliché currency of this most superficial of cities) can arrange to sit across from just about anybody for ten minutes. And ask them just about anything. So long as it means nothing.
Restauranteur Michael Chow opines on milkshakes. Former Lakers MVP James Worthy talks baked chicken. Guests and questions are interchangeable—because what does it matter how former ex-supermodel Cheryl Tiegs eats her ice cream any more than it matters how Israel eats his? Either way, you would be foolish to care. The interview lies there like a spotlight segment in a teen magazine or the copy of a Penthouse spread. It's really the erotic image (if anything), the seduction of media, that holds our interest: the sheer facts of celebrity, desire, sex, consumption. Except this isn't television; it's one better: the self-reflexive, post-Marxist, artworld-savvy meta-media of “a crap Reena Spaulings show.”
“L.A.” (meaning Hollywood) is made of iconoclasts and celebrities, here providing a somewhat demythologized texture. Foregrounded is the kind of “insider access” that Israel, a well-Rolodexed L.A. native, can provide. The guests are what the gallery calls “crepuscular” figures—icons, perhaps, of the L.A. of 30-year-old Israel's youth. “Today's subject is” so-and-so, each segment begins; but this question should be turned around. Today's subject is always Alex Israel. Over its thirty episodes, the show spreads out the essential cliché of Israel's character: a dilettante artist invested in a self-perpetuating, all-expenses-paid, packaged vision of an endlessly complex city. Yet this in itself isn't especially challenging. This subjective portrait, rather than revealing, is ambiguously bound to a mythic L.A.—one that the (stereotypical) New Yorker might find reassuringly vapid. Significant, then, that this body of work, though filmed in a subsidized studio in the Pacific Design Center, debuts at Reena Spaulings in New York. As it LAys reproduces, then gleefully dwells within, a groomed and sheltered criticality that is content with calling a screen a screen. Maybe if life were like television, formulaic and essentializing, it would make more sense. But it isn't, and it doesn't. And, so there is no confusion: life is life, art art, product product, and TV TV.
Travis Diehl is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.