By May S. Ruiz
“The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough is so representative of the Huntington (Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Garden) in San Marino that it is usually the first piece of art people seek out when they tour the gallery.
Visitors to the venerable San Marino landmark will either find it delightfully amusing or downright shocking when they see this iconic painting juxtaposed to a decidedly modern selfie of contemporary artist Alex Israel wearing a Dodger’s blue jacket. A year in the planning, this art intervention of works by Israel opened to the public on Dec. 12, 2015 and will be on view until July 11, 2016.
Kevin Salatino, director of the art collections at the Huntington, says, “Not everyone would associate us with contemporary art, but we live in the 21st century so we should engage with all that’s 21st century. People think this mansion must have been exactly what it looked like when the Huntingtons were here, which is so far from the truth; it is not a static house. But there is a certain consistency to the kind of Gilded Age material that we continue to collect that complement what the Huntingtons had.”
It may surprise many to know that the Huntington has done the occasional contemporary intervention before now. Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art, relates, “Our first intervention was a Ricky Swallow sculptures and Lesley Vance paintings exhibition in a small upstairs gallery. It was the beginning of the earthquake and we got our constituents through that.”
The decision to approach Israel this time around was Salatino’s idea. He explains, “I have known Alex and have watched his career flourish. He loves L.A. and its iconography, the Hollywood dream machine, and fantasy. And so much about the Huntington is really about fantasy. About a year ago, Alex looked at the house and thought about his pre-existing work to decide which objects are right for the Huntington.
“Our goal is to create a dialogue between the old and the new; we want people to see the old through the lens of the new, and vice-versa. Some people might react positively, some might respond negatively, but that would be better than for them not to think at all,” Salatino concludes.
Hess interjects, “One of the biggest surprises, at least in my perspective, after the installation was complete, was how some traditional Masters pieces were remarkably informed by the juxtaposition of Alex’s art, and the reverse. His work, in a vacuum, can read a certain way, but placed in this context, makes it compelling. I’m hoping people will also see it that way.”
Salatino continues, “This contemporary installation is meant to be engaging, provocative, interesting. Then it goes away and we’ll do another one in a few years. A really good reason for having Alex’s work here is that he has a love affair with this area. It was much the same for Henry Huntington, who fell in love with it after he visited. He initially thought he would buy the land and divide it up, but eventually decided to keep it. It was one of the first Beaux Arts residences and was the largest house for miles around until it was supplanted by Aaron Spelling’s mansion in West Hollywood. Alex grew up in the Holmby Park circle, looking up at Spelling’s house.”
The culture of Hollywood and celebrity is very much the central theme in Israel’s oeuvre. Sprinkled throughout the Huntington are paintings, murals, and sculptures that reference famous movies or icons from memorable films. It is a veritable scavenger hunt for visitors to the art gallery as they find contemporary pieces that have been placed alongside traditional art objects.
There is the crystal egg on a mantelpiece that was an iconic piece from the 1983 coming-of-age Tom Cruise film “Risky Business,” for instance. In another gallery, a cleverly concealed bronze prop will undoubtedly cause visitors to do a double-take at one of the most recognizable 1941 “Maltese Falcon” props. In the ceramics study room, Israel displayed a mold of an Oscar statuette – the very quintessence of Hollywood and celebrity.
The most dramatic of Israel’s installation is the transformation of the staircase where a fragmented sky backdrop mural bursts. Salatino enthuses, “It is an Aha! moment – with drama and theatricality in a way that is not intrusive, but complementary. It’s stunningly beautiful and it looks like it’s been there forever. It’s deliberately titled backdrop because it is a backdrop for films. It serves as one for every visitor as if each were an actor in a film.”
During the holiday season the Huntington’s Christmas tree stood in this area, which Israel decorated with his self-portrait in miniature. It is not an ego-trip, but a celebration of celebrity.
Israel likens today’s selfies to the Grand Manner portraits of the early 19th century. His Dodger blue-jacketed selfie is not meant to be tongue-in-cheek – rather, it is his homage to “The Blue Boy.” Hopefully, art enthusiasts appreciate it as such.