The Huntington Library was my playground as a kid. It was the lazy Sunday activity for the Antonsson household, and my brothers and I would spend the afternoon chasing dragonflies, throwing bread at the ducks, looking for turtles, rolling down hills, and generally causing a ruckus.
One afternoon, on a trip down to the Australian garden, we found a wheelbarrow in the bushes. I jumped inside and my brothers drove me around to the labyrinth, where we took turns running each other through the maze, the rusty wheel creaking as it passed over the gravel lining the bottom of the paths.
We thought the bonsai trees were possessed by ancient spirits, and our mother told us that the weeping willows came alive at night.
Inside the Library’s museum, we stood in front of Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie (1794) and Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (c. 1770) for minutes at a time (which, for a seven-year-old, is considerable) and drew them with pastel and watercolor in art class, Pinkie’s eyes two tiny black pastel dots.
We wondered aloud, as we looked at the gruesome bronzes of dogs eating boars and boars eating dogs on the back porch of the Huntington house, how the Huntingtons ever called their children to dinner on such a vast estate.
As we grew up, the austerity of the Huntington descended on my brothers and me. My junior year English teacher showed the class the American Art gallery and John Singleton Copley burst into my consciousness like a flame. Professors at college would tell me of their research at the Huntington and how many times they’d flown back to visit the Library. The place never lost its magic, but that feeling faded more and more into the sepia tone of nostalgia.
Nowadays, I go to the Huntington to read in the sun and sketch in the shade. I visit the tea house with my parents on Sundays mornings and attend plays in the evenings. It has become a dignified space, one filled more with the spirit of a Jane Austen novel than the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the magic is still there, waiting to be found in the space between the viewer and the paintings, the plants and the path, and Los Angeles artist Alex Israel has tapped into that magic, swooping into the Huntington house and plastering its walls with his candy-colored skyscapes.
The Alex Israel “intervention” at the Huntington is not what one would expect. The show is part treasure hunt, part reorientation, his pieces purposefully scattered throughout the Huntington house in order to blur the lines between the traditional and the contemporary. The gallery fortunately provides a map with the location of each of Israel’s works, because some get lost in the ambiguity of time. A glass sphere atop a mantelpiece hardly looks out of place, and a marble statuette of frozen yogurt, The Bigg Chill (2013), elicits a humorous double-take. It looks oddly at home in the display case of French miniatures, its curves mirroring those of the pieces alongside it, as if the distance between the 18th and 21st centuries were not so great.
Through a doorway, just beyond a self-portrait of Israel in a bright blue Dodgers jacket, Blue Boy peeks out in the next gallery. The two are brothers of different generations, one in the austere pose of tradition, the other in the smirking casualness of an Instagram photo.
Behind a table of three Sèvres biscuit porcelain statuettes, an orange and pink sky hangs on the wall, as if it has been there all along. It may seem unorthodox, it may seem unthinkable, but the ocular delight of Israel’s color scheme brings these statuettes to life. The gravity of the Huntington suddenly melts into what it is and always has been: a collection built on a love for art, one that always seemed like effortless magic to me as a kid.
Israel works his own magic in how his pieces reframe the artworks. It’s not quite juxtaposition, but reimagination. Turning the corner to head down the stairs again, the magnificent Jean-Antoine Houdon bronze Diana chasseresse (1782) greets you on the opposite site of the hallway, but this time, she is backgrounded by a pink and blue star of comic book proportions. Diana, the superhero. Diana, the way I saw her as a seven-year-old, as if all you had to do was peel back the paint on the wall behind her to reveal her true nature.
None of the contemporary pieces seem out of place. The intervention doesn’t feel like juxtaposition, it feels like the centuries catching up with each other and meeting somewhere in the middle. Israel nods to art history, but he keeps his 21st century head, with pieces such as the full-size mannequin Self-Portrait (Wetsuit) (2015) that is of diminutive Grecian proportions but depicts a wetsuit in the same pink and blue as Diana’s star. The wetsuit and its companion pieces meld effortlessly into the Large Library, the astonishing colors of a Los Angeles sunset complementing the grounded, earthy tones of the room, adding a proverbial sky to the room’s proverbial terra firma.
There is no other city in which Israel’s intervention could have such effortless impact. His work is born of the vernacular of Los Angeles — its colors, shapes, sensibilities — and simply belongs with its historical forebearers.
The show is clever, it is smart, it is refreshingly cheeky. Israel’s pieces look at the artworks alongside them without intimidation, squaring up, shoulder-to-shoulder. The same way my brothers and I would scribble Blue Boy on cardstock to hang on the refrigerator. The same way we’d look at the bronze boars and think idly of dinner. The same way we saw magic in every inch of those grounds.
Alex Israel at the Huntington is on view through July 11, 2016.