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Bret Easton Ellis and Alex Israel
Bret Easton Ellis and Alex Israel

Bret Easton Ellis and Alex Israel on L.A, hope & art

We speak to the American Psycho author and his collaborator Alex Israel about Los Angeles, Facebook and why 2017 is worse than 1984 as they launch new artwork in London

“Facebook was the first corporation that anyone joined, a corporation that had its own laws, its own dictums,” says Bret Easton Ellis. “You had to be upbeat, you had to like stuff, they only had a like button, it was sexless, we had to behave within a certain kind of morality or else we'd get booted off. I think many, many people learned how to behave by joining this corporation and it did offer an unrealistic view of the world. It was relentlessly upbeat.”

I’m in a stark, white room of the Gagosian gallery in London with the author of American Psycho, Less Than Zero and Rules Of Attraction. Sat alongside him is his collaborator, the multimedia artist and eyewear designer Alex Israel, who’s wearing shades. Both are in high spirits, delighted at the success of Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement on Instagram and glad that pop culture has (however temporarily) usurped politics at the top of the news pile. They’re lined up for a long succession of interviews about their new artwork that is debuting in the gallery.

The work – that takes influence from the likes of Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari – is a series of paintings of stock images that Israel has painstakingly pored over and bought to be recreated on canvas, overlaid with Bret Easton Ellis’ text. To me, they appear as eerie versions of those faux-inspirational, motivational Facebook memes that act as anaemic call-to-arms for truly basic people. Which is why we’re talking about the behemothic social media network.

“It's all fake hope, the whole thing is fake aspirations, fake desires, fake loves,” says Easton Ellis. “It really seems to me – the notion of interconnectivity is really only that, a notion, and I think everyone is alone, staring into a screen, longing for something that isn't going to happen. I'm much more pessimistic about this than Alex is, but it does give a fake hope to people.”

“It's all fake hope, the whole thing is fake aspirations, fake desires, fake loves” – Bret Easton Ellis on Facebook

Despite my ‘incorrect’ reading of the art, Easton Ellis and Israel are both adamant that the work is not about Facebook at all, but about L.A. “When we sat down to work on the project, we knew that the theme of this project was going to be Los Angeles or the subject was going to be Los Angeles’ culture,” says Israel. “And then from there, we started getting more and more specific, so Bret started developing a world of locations, characters and motivations.” One character is the master manipulator, who tells her lover that “this isn’t a real relationship. It’s showbiz”. It conjures up that clichéd stereotype of the city – a gold-plated dystopia of angels and devils, stained with desperation, deviance and glamour. Easton Ellis says that that version of Los Angeles – a place he likes now but felt alienated by when he wrote Less Than Zero – no longer exists.

“I think Hollywood is over”, he says. “That notion is eroded. There is a globalised feeling about L.A that’s very different from 20 years ago. It is not the same city and that idea of the farm boy getting off the bus to make it as a movie star – that world does not exist.”

“They actually closed the Greyhound bus station down. It doesn’t exist anymore,” says Israel. “But that notion of the Hollywood of yore, that idea of showbiz, is in everything. It’s nowhere and everywhere.”

Easton Ellis agrees. “Correct, that’s also true. It’s in the way people brand themselves on Instagram, it’s in politics.”

“I think Hollywood is over....that idea of the farm boy getting off the bus to make it as a movie star – that world does not exist” – Bret Easton Ellis

Given the timing of the work’s release, an observer could be forgiven for thinking that the other canvas on display in the gallery is about a totemic demagogue called Donald. In fact, Israel reveals that the words “CAN 50 MILLION PEOPLE BE WRONG? PROBABLY” refer to an episode of American Idol. Actually, 63 million people voted for the current president, but both Israel and Easton Ellis are aware that people will discover new meanings in it. A guy walked past and said to Easton Ellis “55 million, mate!” believing that it was in reference to the U.S election and the work contained a factual error.

While the work may not be a reference to Donald Trump, he’s the huge elephant in every room right now, and given that he’s mentioned several times in American Psycho (often referred to by Patrick Bateman as “Donny”) he certainly feels worthy of discussion. “He destroyed the G.O.P establishment – great,” Easton Ellis says of Trump. “He destroyed the Republican party. He destroyed the Washington establishment. He made the media seem completely irrelevant. I don’t understand why the left does not give him points for that. Well, the media can’t. What kind of a dystopian universe is that? It’s a really crazy way to get your information – it’s worse than 1984, 1984 is quaint compared to what’s going on in the media right now.”

Easton Ellis is adamant that Bateman would have voted for Trump, but with a caveat. “Of course Patrick Bateman would have voted for Trump. But it’s a very different Trump now. The notion of Trump being this aspirational figure in the 80s for these Wall Street’s a very different notion now, it’s a very different aspiration. I don’t think that the Trump who has put himself out there now would've been particularly attractive to Patrick Bateman. It’s not really who he would aspire to, in a sense that he’s out there really talking to the people that Patrick despised and trying to connect with them. But who else was Patrick going to vote for? The Green Party?” He says that Clay from Less Than Zero would not have voted for Trump and the Bret Easton Ellis who narrates, fucks and snorts his way through the strange faux-memoir Lunar Park would apparently have been “too out of it, too scared, too wasted, to get anywhere near to even fill in an absentee ballot.”

“I don’t think that the Trump who has put himself out there now would've been particularly attractive to Patrick Bateman. It’s not really who he would aspire to” – Bret Easton Ellis

One person who certainly would have voted for the current president if he could have is British news editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who works for far-right website Breitbart, founded by Steve Bannon, now the president’s chief strategist. The three of us are talking the day after protestors at UC Berkeley shut down an appearance from the controversial commentator, who was due to speak on campus as part of his “Dangerous Faggot” tour, a person Easton Ellis describes as a “provocateur” and someone whose @Nero account was deleted from Twitter after he became involved in an argument with Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, who was being subjected to racist abuse.

“I would much rather have Milo Yiannopoulos on Twitter than a middle-aged actress who can’t handle trolls,” says Easton Ellis. “This complete inability to deal with shit is why Trump won. Trump decimated identity politics. He completely erased whatever the authoritarian PC culture was that emerged during the Obama era and was going to keep exploding into the Clinton era. He completely blew that up, because no-one could live under that. I think it hit its apex with that Steve Martin tweet about Carrie Fisher (see below). Identity politics feminists wrote essays saying ‘how dare you objectify Carrie Fisher’ and he deleted the tweet. Everyone was outraged over it.”

Easton Ellis is at his most animated when discussing freedom of speech or the idea that “feelings aren’t facts” and it’s something that he’s spoken about at length on his popular podcast. While it’s easy to agree with him that Steve Martin being criticised vigorously for saying Carrie Fisher is beautiful is an overreaction, or that the determined policing of language online might be stifling discussion, let me say that Leslie Jones being forced off Twitter after receiving racist abuse is grim, wrong and certainly not down to her “not being able to handle trolls”. It’s an actress being hounded and racially abused to the point she shuts her Twitter.

While quieter on the subject, to an extent Israel agrees with Easton Ellis. “I think people also have to be okay with being offended and arguing – I don’t want to live in a world where I’m never offended. That’s not an interesting place for my creative brain to live and exist.”

“I think people also have to be okay with being offended and arguing – I don’t want to live in a world where I’m never offended” – Alex Israel

Neither Israel nor Easton Ellis are offended by criticism of their work. I mention one reviewer describing it as cliché, something that could be argued is a slightly strange criticism given that the paintings are based on stock photos, the most cliché imagery available. “Everyone, as Alex said, has a right to an opinion,” says Easton Ellis. We got good reviews in the States, we got bad reviews in the States. I think some of the art writers who didn't like it were coming from an elitist point of view and not understanding, in a lot of ways, the playfulness of the work and the power of that. The pure pleasure of going into a gallery and seeing these billboard-sized works is overwhelming. I think there was a reaction against that kind of playfulness. I never approached it as cliché, necessarily.”

“What’s wrong with clichés?” says Israel. “There's a lot of truth in cliché and a lot of beauty in truth. Stock images are inherently cliché.” It’s interesting to note that the final production is done at Warner Bros. studios in Hollywood, by the people responsible for painting the Hollywood backdrops of yesteryear, teams responsible for some of the most popular aesthetic cliché of the last century. Easton Ellis and Israel’s work appears to know who and what it is, comfortable in its own skin but it’s still sitting in an uncomfortable arena – the faded Hollywood era that even Easton Ellis admits no longer exists, of garish, physically imposing billboards, all financed by one of the “Big Six” American film studios based in California. And maybe therein lies the joke – that L.A is everything and nothing all at once, a city that always has been and always will be.

The exhibition runs at the Gagosian from February 4 – April 2017