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FROM THIS EPISODE

Once again, the holiday season is upon us with all its pleasures and demands: guests from out of town, gift shopping, family obligations, and of course, finding something smart and artsy to do. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, one of the most famous cultural institutions here in Southern California, went the extra mile this winter with a new exhibition "Alex Israel at The Huntington," which according to the museum's press release, "is both a provocation and a love letter…"

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"Alex Israel at The Huntington"
Exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California

A big banner greets visitors approaching the historic Huntington Art Gallery. The banner has a double image: on the right is Gainsborough's famous Blue Boy, and on the left is a portrait of a young man clad in Dodger blue. Most of the visitors, including myself, need help to identify this man, and the banner says it loud and clear: "Alex Israel."

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"Alex Israel at The Huntington"
Exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California

This 33-year-old up-and-coming artist, born and raised in LA, already has a number of gallery and museum shows under his belt, and his art can be found in a number of important private collections. And still the question is ––with all these accomplishments ––is his art worthy of being exhibited alongside the world-class masterpieces of The Huntington Collection. Of course not! No contemporary artist can make such a claim. When Jeff Koons' shiny bubble sculptures were exhibited in Versailles a few years ago, it didn't mean to imply that His Majesty Louis XIV would approve it. It was a well-staged artistic juxtaposition or, if you will, a cultural intervention meant to provoke but not to insult.

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"Alex Israel at The Huntington"
Exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California

Going through dozens of galleries of The Huntington Mansion, you are confronted with Alex Israel's paintings, sculptures, and murals that are meant not to gain your admiration but to stop you in your tracks as you try to make sense of seeing the courtly display of classical European masterpieces invaded by noisy newcomers. The Christmas Tree in the museum lobby is decorated with hundreds of ornaments ––all of them tiny, colorful self-portraits of the young artist. I chose to see this display not as self-aggrandizement, but as a tongue-in-cheek statement on the part of the artist and the museum itself.

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"Alex Israel at The Huntington"
Exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California

In an interview with Kevin Salatino, Director of the Art Collections, Alex Israel talks about his parents bringing him to The Huntington as a child and falling in love with its Botanical Gardens. One of the museum's galleries is decorated with Israel's specially designed murals inspired by his favorite, the Desert Garden. The walls of the museum's grand staircase, lined with the artist's pink and blue murals, evoke California skies at sunrise… or maybe sunset…

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"Alex Israel at The Huntington"
Exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California

Seeing the large bronze sculpture of Diana by Jean-Antoine Houdon with Alex Israel's bright pink 12-point star painting as a backdrop made me smile. For a second I wondered if the Goddess is flattered by such attention, or if she's running away to show her indignation. That's a question for each visitor to answer for him or herself.

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"Alex Israel at The Huntington"
Exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California

Israel's life-size sculpture, Self-Portrait (Wetsuit), commands attention in the main library and makes you think (to quote Kevin Salatino) about the artist paying homage not only to Ancient Greek art but also to mannequin sculptures by Charles Ray. So, at the end of my visit, I felt properly amused by the variety of Alex Israel's artistic interventions with the museum's stately collections. But more to the point, I was very impressed by the museum's ballsy decision to stir things up by juxtaposing its priceless European art collection with contextually provocative contemporary art. Just imagine inviting your college buddy to a formal dinner at your parents' house, and he shows up wearing shorts and sandals…

To learn about Edward's Fine Art of Art Collecting Classes, please visit his website and check out this article in Artillery Magazine.


All Photographs by Edward Goldman

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