C California Style

The Sun King

by C California Style

With an appreciation for campy ’80s flicks and Southern California flair, multimedia artist Alex Israel invites a fresh, surf-soaked cast to populate his new work, the film SPF-18

Artist and filmmaker ALEX ISRAEL on the set of SPF-18.

One of my favorite encounters with Alex Israel transpired at Art Basel Miami Beach a few years ago, when we spent an entire evening poring over Taylor Swift music videos. “Look at this one!” he exclaimed, the tenor of his voice taut with excitement, pulling up one video after another. Israel was mesmerized by Swift’s craft, her slick image, the way she draws people into her everygirl fantasy tableau. You could almost see his acute mind turning and marveling, absorbing how this master of pop culture spins her web.

That supple analysis of the now and the sticky, the current that absorbs young people, together with his Southern California upbringing and intimate knowledge of the petri dish that breeds the youth of Los Angeles, has informed the 35-year-old artist’s conceptual work from the very beginning, and drives his new debut feature film, SPF-18.

In the early years, his video series “As It Lays” poked at the stilted aspects of fame as he interviewed various celebrities, asking them questions such as “What are your thoughts on online shopping?” and “What did you have for breakfast?” The bizarre public interest in mundane facts about figures who are familiar yet completely disconnected from us is unmasked.

His “Flats” series was fabricated at Warner Bros. Studios, each backdrop-like piece seeped in that purplish-pinkish sunset color that only seems to exist between La Cienega and Highland at 6 p.m. These stucco panels, some emblazoned with palm trees and giant cutouts of his own head, provide rich contrast, whether on the gallery walls of The Huntington next to an Anthony van Dyke painting or in a wealthy collector’s deliberately adorned home. His collaboration with the quintessential icon of L.A.’s dissolute youth, Bret Easton Ellis, bred work on stock photographs covered with Ellis’ wry phrases, such as “I’m going to be a very different kind of star,” and “Can 50 million people be wrong? Probably.”

I reconnected with the soft-spoken, earnest and extremely thoughtful Israel just after he had returned from launching his show “Summer 2” in Paris at the Almine Rech Gallery. His latest endeavor had been a few years coming, and the film SPF-18 was slated to premiere in September.

SPF-18 is a luminous, colorful romp about four teenagers house-sitting for Keanu Reeves in Malibu over the summer, trying to do the things teens do: discover their identities, express their creativity, experiment sexually and navigate social politics.

The story is told straight and references John Hughes movies, ’60s surf flicks, after-school specials and Baywatch. “Kids are fed so much irony in entertainment; I wanted to do something that was more like the teenage entertainment I remembered growing up—Baywatch is the perfect reference point,” he says, perking up. “There’s no irony in Baywatch!”

In particular, the virginity issue really resonated with kids’ focus groups. “We think that kids are so cool and jaded and media savvy and overexposed to everything through the internet, but they’re still these fragile and emotional beings that are trying to figure out who they are,” Israel notes. Technically, Israel had to learn the process of making a film on the fly. “It was all a mystery to me in the beginning, but ultimately I knew how it should feel and what it would look like,” he says. With that vision, Israel was able to bring together a well-connected team of 40. The writer behind Baywatch, series co-creator Michael Berk, penned the script. China Chow helped secure many of the actors and Duran Duran’s 1982 hit “Hungry Like the Wolf” for the soundtrack. Bettina Korek was brought on as executive producer, and Alex Waite and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (the latter of whom co-wrote 10 Things I Hate About You and Legally Blonde) were tapped as producers. Then came Mona May (the costume designer of Clueless), who made all the costumes, and musician Emile Haynie (who has worked with Kanye West and Eminem), who produced the score. Actors Keanu Reeves and Molly Ringwald added teen flick gravitas to the story. And Pamela Anderson…let’s just say she’s Pamela Anderson. What more can you ask for?

The foray into film as a medium was a deliberate choice for a variety of reasons. Israel has always been interested in pop culture, but the message via film goes beyond cerebral play with concepts: He wants to democratize art for teenagers. “Art has an expansion issue,” he says. “A lot of kids think it means you have to draw well, and one of the things I want to communicate is that making art can be a lot of things, and ultimately kids get to decide what art looks like in the future.”

He knows that when his artwork is exhibited in a gallery, it isn’t attracting a younger audience—and some of his strongest memories are of being a teenager and being exposed to museums by his parents and a fabulous high school art teacher at Studio City’s Harvard-Westlake. This project is his attempt to bring kids into the ambience of his work. “It’s meant to enfranchise young people in art and make them feel like they’re a part of it.”

As the film launches on iTunes on September 29, followed by its Netflix debut on October 29 as well as screenings at a number of high schools (as a nod to the way surf films used to be disseminated), he’ll have his wish very soon. “The key message is that being creative is a good way to help you find your voice,” he says. spf18.com.


Photography by RACHEL CHANDLER.


This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of C Magazine.