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Review: Alex Israel spells everything out at the Huntington

Installation view of the mansion's grand staircase with the holiday tree decorated in Alex Israel self-portrait ornaments, with "Sky Backdrop Mural," 2015, on the staircase walls.
Installation view of the mansion’s grand staircase with the holiday tree decorated in Alex Israel self-portrait ornaments, with “Sky Backdrop Mural,” 2015, on the staircase walls.
(Huntington Library)
Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Do we really need to be shown that the elegant San Marino mansion built by railroad magnate and financier Henry E. Huntington is not an 18th century Georgian manor house in the English countryside but is, instead, an authentic 1911 American pastiche?

Probably not. The Huntington is not singular. The same is true of the 1888 Beaux-Arts style Marble House in Newport, R.I., the 1896 Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., and scores more such Gilded Age estates dotted across the country.

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But neo-Pop artist Alex Israel, 33, shows us anyway, installing painted pink-and-blue twilight backdrops commissioned from a Warner Bros. studio workshop to the raised wood boiserie panels in the Huntington mansion’s grand staircase. The apparent point is to confirm that, yes, a painted movie backdrop and the mansion are both real, born of the same era, in case we mistook either one for an illusion.

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Sending pink and blue color up the walls is pretty, if artistically simplistic. The chromatic nod to the museum’s celebrity teen couple, Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy,” just lies there. The installation summons creaky Hollywood clichés, plus clichés about creaky Hollywood clichés.

And so it goes throughout “Alex Israel at the Huntington,” a seven-month exhibition of shallow mixed-media works inserted here and there throughout the grand house.

A carved-marble swirl of frozen yogurt in a foam cup is placed among decorative arts confections of French Rococo pottery. A giant polarizing lens from a gargantuan pair of sunglasses (Israel owns an eyewear company) leans against a wall, supposedly offering a glare-free perspective through Light and Space sculpture.

A bronze cast of the blocky Art Deco title-prop from the 1941 Humphrey Bogart movie classic “The Maltese Falcon,” designed by artist Fred Sexton, is lined up among figurative bronzes, their twisting classical heroes based on the Italian Mannerist sculptural dramas of Giambologna.

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In a more elaborate installation, Israel had a scene-painter portray specimens from the Huntington’s famous cactus garden on surrounding white walls in a small room near galleries for exotic landscape paintings. The painted plants are accompanied by a trash can and a soft drink cup from In-N-Out Burger, just in case you missed the installation’s reference to indoor-outdoor living in L.A.

The pallid jokes pile up fast. At the entrance to the museum’s incomparable gallery of British Grand Manner portraits, they go colorless.

Three big self-portraits of the artist wearing dark glasses, which brand him as Andy Warhol’s putative heir, include one in which Israel has donned a blue satin Dodgers jacket. The satiny azure fireworks in Gainsborough’s magnificent “Blue Boy” anchor the next room. That “Blue Boy” might be something more than an overbaked celebrity icon seems extraneous or unknown.

Back near the entry, in Henry Huntington’s personal library, a pastel-painted wetsuit is installed on a pedestal, as if it were an ancient sculpture-fragment. The suit suggests that the artist might be preparing a deep dive into the museum’s richly layered history. Instead, we get a hectoring exercise in artist-branding. Body surfing is fun for the surfer but tedious for a viewer.

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The show is one in an occasional series of artist interventions at the Huntington, this one organized by art collection director Kevin Salatino and curator Catherine Hess. The most recent, all in 2012, were an engaging two-person installation by sculptor Ricky Swallow and painter Lesley Vance and a separate sound installation by Steve Roden.

The Israel show is a pretty good demonstration of the series’ biggest potential pitfall. If one artist is going to intervene on another artist of the caliber of Gainsborough, then one-dimensional pop wisecracks about conventional themes are probably not going to be enough. Israel ends up looking twee.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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‘Alex Israel at the Huntington’

Where: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino

When: Through July 11. Closed Tuesdays.

Admission: $10-$25

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Info: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org


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