How a 200-year-old woodblock print still reverberates across the visual landscape, from the hyper-stylized cartooning of Japanese manga to the scale and focus of modern surf photography. From TSJ 29.1.

…Perspective in art—the rendering of things closer to the viewer as larger than things in the distance—was something not commonly found in Japanese works and is considered a European invention, dating to the Renaissance period. From 1641 to 1883, the Japanese permitted trade with only one European country, the Netherlands, which was allowed one trading post on a small island in Nagasaki Bay. Dutch imports, including etchings of works by artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Jan van Goyen caught the eye of artists like Hokusai and taught them the lessons of Western perspective. Later Japanese art, particularly the flattening of the picture plane found in woodblock prints, would influence European artists like Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.

Within the history of Western art, however, images like Hokusai’s depiction of huge waves are rare. In maritime paintings, a stormy sea usually serves as merely the backdrop for ships. In seascapes, where land meets the sea, the focus is most often on waves breaking over rocks or gently rolling onto shore. It’s typically only in modern surf photography that we find close and persistent representations of big-wave imagery. Issues of scale and perspective are constantly being manipulated in surf photography. In the work of lensmen like Clark Little, for example, a latent Hokusai influence is felt. His series of the Ke Iki shorebreak contorts scale, making small waves seem huge. Meanwhile, in photographs of Portugal’s Nazaré, there is an additional land-based reference point for scale, which gives them even more common ground with Hokusai’s The Great Wave.

Any photograph of a surfer on a wave gives some idea of proportion. However, since a surfer basically shares the same plane as the wave’s face, one mainly gets a sense of height from a two-dimensional perspective. At Nazaré, however, most photographs of the surf are taken from a vantage point that includes groups of people on the bluff in front of the wave, allowing for a three-dimensional reading and thereby increasing the wave’s visceral impact.

The fishing boats in Hokusai’s The Great Wave do something similar. The small boat directly underneath the breaking wave is roughly on the same plane as the wave itself, but the one in the sea, closer to the foreground, provides a second reference point, allowing one to compare the scale of the boats and, taken with Mount Fuji in the background, adds greatly to the wave’s three-dimensionality and a feeling for its mass. Photos taken from a water angle at places like Teahupoo, where the back of the wave can be observed (sometimes with boats and other surfers in the frame on the shoulder) have a comparable effect.

Animism (the belief that all things have a spirit) is a prevalent belief in Japan, stemming from the traditional Shinto religion. Hokusai renders The Great Wave as if it were alive, imbuing it with dragon-like talons, a force unto itself. The artist is famous for saying, “From the age of 6, I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50, I had published a universe of designs but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish, and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100 I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110 everything I create—a dot, a line—will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.’” Hokusai was about 72 when he finished Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. He lived until he was 89…

Alex Israel’s artwork blurs the lines between fine art, superficiality, and appropriations of surf.

“I’m not a real surfer, I’m an aspirational surfer.”—Alex Israel

Alex Israel embraces pop culture in a way that would make Andy Warhol blush. As an artist, he takes the superficiality he sees in his hometown of Los Angeles seriously—its horizon lines with sunset colors around dusk and dawn, the stucco surface of its buildings, Hollywood, the corny television and radio shows that play 24 hours a day, the freeways and traffic, and even surfing—and renders it meticulously in his work.

Born in 1982, Israel grew up in Los Angeles and attended the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School. He got his undergraduate degree as an art major from Yale, and then received his master’s degree at the University of Southern California back in LA.

Israel is in a unique position to muster the varied forces of Los Angeles in unprecedented ways. He occupies a kind of no man’s land located somewhere between the film industry, retail, and the art world. He freely moves across the borders of these terrains, dragging concepts from one into the other, such as taking props from a film he produced and directed, titled SPF-18, and putting it into a gallery exhibition, or using that gallery space as the backdrop for his talk show AsItLAys(the title a reference to Joan Didion’s 1970 book Play It As It Lays, set in Los Angeles). Even his logo, a profile of own his head wearing sunglasses—which is a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known profile silhouette—straddles the concepts of art, commerce, and film.

In this merging of mediums, and in the discussion of authenticity and superficiality, Israel often uses and references surfers, surfing, and beach culture.

In one example, he invited Laird Hamilton as a guest on his talk show and asked him a series of pre-written questions read from index cards, his stiff, deadpan, monotone delivery contrasting with Hamilton’s colorful, self-satisfied humility. Questions ranged from the mundane to the spiritual: “What is your favorite SPF? Are you good about keeping up with regular visits to the dentist? What humbles you?” Twisting the conventions of celebrity interviews, Israel chose not respond to any Hamilton’s answers. He then amusingly wrapped-up the show, as he does with all of them, by saying, “Well, that’s all the time we have for today.”

In SPF-18, he uses a stereotypical portrayal of surfing as a backdrop to support the narrative about teens coming of age in Malibu, similar to earlier mass-audience films like Ride the Wild Surf(1964) and PointBreak (1991). Nevertheless, he has noble intentions with the narrative. The movie presents alternate, atypical answers to familiar struggles of growing up, like reshaping notions about losing one’s virginity or validating creativity as a legitimate career path.

SPF-18was shown in high schools across the country, screened similarly to the way surf films were distributed in the 1960s and 70s. “I thought, what a great way to once again pay homage to the history of this region,” Israel says about the surf film distribution model, “and to also reach teenagers and potentially get them excited about art and creativity.”

One of the characters in SPF-18discovers her creative side by spray painting a wetsuit, and realizes that she can parlay it into a commercial product. In real-life, Israel took the same wetsuit concept and used it to create sculptural pieces for a Gagosian exhibition in Los Angeles. He wore the stucco-textured wetsuit himself, molded and cast it in aluminum, which he then repainted to match the gradient colors of a sunset. He mounted the suit on a metal torso, giving it the qualities of a Hellenistic period sculpture reminiscent of what one might find at the Getty Museum.

“I think of the wave as a sort of interesting metaphor,” Israel says. “You can go with the wave or against it, or ride on it or against it. And you can gain momentum, do tricks on it—use it to your advantage. If the idea of lifestyle is the wave, then I think there’s something to that.”

At the beginning of SPF-18, the narrator, Goldie Hawn, makes the observation: “When you grow up in L.A., real life and the movies can get a little mixed up.” Israel is a believer in “infrathin,” a word invented by the artist Marcel Duchamp that indicates the thin separation between related things, a term Israel appropriated for his clothing line. The concept of infrathin is key to understanding how he thinks about circumventing conventional boundaries. Movies, video, film, television, and fashion occupy an increasingly larger part of our waking hours, and Israel’s work operates in multiple cultural zones, addressing multiple audiences. “I often think about the infrathin—the aura of art, the difference between art and life,” he says. “Making non-art, or making things that are in between or art adjacent can be incredibly freeing and inspiring. In my experience, that freedom and inspiration often pours over into the next body of work.”

That pouring over can be seen in his sunglass brand, Freeway Eyewear, where the artist examines popular culture from a side-angle. The brand has five different lines, each named after a major LA freeway. “Freeway sunglasses,” he says, characterizing the brand, “are made for international shipping magnates, American gigolos, blonde bombshells, ladies-who-lunch, country club tennis pros, martyred grunge rockers, post-modern architects, Bat Mitzvah tutors, out-of-work actors, psychic friends, and you. Seeing is believing.”

He also has a sixth line, LA Rays, whose title was appropriated from a now defunct line that was located in Laguna Beach in the 90s. He commissioned surfer-artists John Van Hamersveld to design the logo, and Anthony Friedkin to photograph the goods. Prototypes of the glasses are featured in Israel’s 2010 art video, Rough Winds. The stylistic affinity of Freeway Eyeware to the Hobie sunglass line is deliberate.

Conceptually, Israel views the lenses of his sunglasses as devices that frame the LA landscape, and to some extent, the LA experience. He’s exhibited eight-foot tall, UV-protective plastic lenses in a number of spaces, including LAXART in 2013. They reference the rich art history of California’s Light and Space and Finish Fetish movements, and bring to mind the work of artists like Doug Edge, Robert Irwin, John McCracken, Helen Pashgian, and DeWain Valentine, along with current up and coming LA artists like Gisela Colon and Alex Weinstein.

Israel’s Lenssculptures are a great example of how his work ignores conventional distinctions between commercial and art contexts. They reach out and touch so many cultural reference points that it’s nearly impossible to pin down, codify, or identify them. It’s what makes his work so compelling—operating on a different plane, free from the conventional categories that art normally adheres to.

Yet, some of Israel’s work is created as straightforward, hanging gallery style art. In the summer of 2018, Israel exhibited a series called New Waveat the Gagosian gallery in Hong Kong, which was comprised of a collection of sculptures composed of airbrushed and hardened fiberglass, each panel cast from an original that was made of cut and sewn neoprene. LA surfer/artist Ken Price’s acrylic and ink drawings inspired the series, especially Price’s kitschy Tijuana curio color palette and the simple outlines that define the subject matter. Hokusai’s iconic wood block prints of waves are another important visual reference point.

As Israel says, “I think of the wave as a sort of interesting metaphor. You can go with the wave or against it, or ride on it or against it. And you can gain momentum, do tricks on it—use it to your advantage. If the idea of lifestyle is the wave, then I think there’s something to that. I want to be speaking the language of the culture of our time, and that’s lifestyle. That’s not to belittle, or poke fun or criticize that way of thinking.”

Israel believes “superficiality is filled with meaning.” His art reflects the ubiquitous, clichéd elements of Los Angeles, the stuff you never think about because it lurks in the background even as it’s right in front of our faces—largely forgotten and ignored. For Israel, Los Angeles is truly La La Land, the place where fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact. It’s a place where surfing becomes a symbolic promise of a certain lifestyle. It’s a glorious way to confuse the conventions of commerce, film, and art. And so he pulls every lever he can.