Artist Alex Israel on Pop Culture Inspiration and Dealing with Rapid Financial Success

Alex Israel talks about art, Los Angeles, As It Lays, and more in this Talk Show with Harper Simon. Unexpected creative and commercial success, his recent show "Property," and collaborating with Warner Brothers, plus the local inspiration for his work and unintended impact of his art is shared in this irreverent conversation.

Guest Bio

Alex Israel is a artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited internationally and is included in the permanent collections of numerous museums. He is the host of a web talk show As it Lays and the founder of Freeway Eyewear. He enjoys frozen yogurt and hiking in the Santa Monica mountains.

Los Angeles-based artist Alex Israel reflects on how the city and his upbringing in Hollywood still has a significant impact on his art, and also discusses other unique forms and projects he’s explored throughout his career.

“I’m very inspired by the city,” said Alex about his continuing fascination with the Los Angeles landscape in his body of work.

“I really always loved the work of Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston in particular, in terms of the generation of artists who developed in the ‘60s in Los Angeles. I love Raymond Pettibon’s work, I love Larry Johnson’s work, and I love Jason Rhoades.”

He talks about working in the business side of the art world during a five-year span between college and graduate school, prior to launching his own art. “For me it was very natural, I was always an artist, I was an art major in college – and I always made art – I was just kind of quiet about it.”

At a certain point Alex says he knew he wanted to branch out publicly and focus on being an artist full time. But before doing this, he went to graduate school at USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts.

“When I went into graduate school, I kind of had this idea about what I wanted to do. Some things I had been working out and trying to figure out, and I knew with the two years of graduate school I could really work through them and accomplish them, and figure out what I wanted to do.”

Alex speaks about his use of popular culture and Hollywood celebrities in his work, which he said definitely stems in part from his childhood growing up in Los Angeles. “But it also came from growing up watching television, and going to the movies, and going to theme parks, and just being a consumer of those things and being a fan of those things.”

He also discusses a performance art show he used to put on in the form of a talk show called As It Lays, which was named after the Joan Didion novel Play It as It Lays. During the show, Alex would pose random, often mundane questions to well-known celebrities in full deadpan style, in an effort to discover his subjects’ true selves.

“I made it in a completely independent way, I made it for myself – for my own website – which was going to be the method of distribution for it,” Alex explains about the show.

“I wanted to figure out how to make a portrait of L.A., or portraits of L.A. people. So As It Lays was something I did to figure out how to make portraits. I knew that I couldn’t carve a portrait out of a block of marble, or I couldn’t make an oil painting of someone – because I don’t have those skills – so I started thinking about, what does it mean to make a contemporary portrait.”

He also said he drew inspiration for the video project from Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, which he followed during her last season on the air.

“I figured if there was a way to use the talk show format, but strip away all of the kind of promotional aspects that are embedded in it as we know it, I might just be able to get likenesses of people – in the traditional sense of portraiture as something that’s meant to capture someone’s likeness.”

Watch the full interview to also hear Alex discuss his current projects and how he’s dealt with the rise in popularity of his art and the accompanying financial success.