Alex Israel and Bret Easton Ellis: Why new billboard art loses its power when seen up close

For two guys who are supposed to know a lot about Los Angeles, Alex Israel and Bret Easton Ellis make some pretty big missteps in their collaborative exhibition at the Beverly Hills branch of Gagosian Gallery.

Mistake No. 1: They forget that looking at paintings and looking at billboards are not the same thing.

What looks good from the driver’s seat doesn’t necessarily look good up-close and in person. Just about every one of their 16 images, which range in size from 6- to 14-feet on a side, would be better as a billboard.

The combination of Ellis’ lean prose and the stock imagery Israel purchased online provides the kind of distraction that makes driving less annoying: something amusing to glance at and wonder about until the light changes and more consequential activities demand your attention.

In one, the sentence “I’m going to be a very different kind of star.” is printed over a nighttime view of L.A.’s skyline. Emblazoned across another night scene is the description of a naked zombie who likes guys in blazers, drives a Cadillac and thinks, rather reasonably, about the human need for secrecy.

Palm trees, desert vistas, beach scenes, sunshine, stucco and terrazzo depict L.A. as a great big cliché. The same goes for the texts, which dive into the interiors lives of people primarily concerned with how they are dressed and how others see them.

Billboards around town advertise the exhibition. But they would be more compelling if they weren’t adverting anything. Not knowing what’s being sold leaves passersby with more to ponder than most advertisements — and more to mull over than is served up in the exhibition, where the airlessness induces claustrophobia.

Problem No. 2: The duo wants visitors to forget that in galleries new works invite comparisons with previous works.

To look at Israel and Ellis’ digitally printed canvases is to think about works by Alexis Smith, Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons — and then, very quickly, to wish you were looking at any one of those artists' far more fascinating meditations on the way clichés can sizzle with meaning.

That doesn’t happen with the Israel and Ellis' bland brand of image-and-text Conceptualism, which takes itself too seriously and tries too hard to be above it all. Their stab at casual gravitas falls all over itself.

Gaffe No. 3: They do not seem to have realized that the 1980s are over and that production value for its own sake is nothing more than production value for its own sake. In art, corporate slickness is pretentious and pointless, even when done tongue-in-cheek.

Suggestion No. 1: If Israel and Ellis collaborate again, do it on billboards. Or in magazines. Leave the canvas for painters.

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through April 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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