Perfectly post-Fordist and multidisciplinary, the creative director is an emblem of our current cultural industry, balancing commercial and artistic spheres. This Venice Beach native—working for the Kardashian-West clan and Lady Gaga while launching his own brand—has left a distinct fingerprint on American pop aesthetics: a meditation on fame, glamour and mythology.
Words: Jeppe Ugelvig
When Kanye West released the music video of his 2016 hit “Famous,” it prompted the German avant-garde film director Werner Herzog to spontaneously release a critique celebrating both its formal and conceptual brilliance. “I have never seen anything like this—it really has caliber,” he said of the video, which famously features a group of life-like wax doll renderings of celebrities—George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, Ray J, Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, Bill Cosby, even West and his wife, Kim Kardashian—lying naked, seemingly sleeping, in bed. Recorded on a scrappy camcorder, the video brings to mind Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 107-minute video artwork David (2004), as well as the dreamlike videoscapes of Pipilotti Rist, Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and that epic 2009 Rolling Stone cover with the cast of Gossip Girl, shot by Terry Richardson. A meditation on fame, politics and media alienation, “Famous” is perfectly emblematic of West’s multimedia commentary on contemporary America: puckish, spectacular, scandalous and deeply ironic, it offers no moral position beyond its own grim ambivalence.
The brainchild behind the “Famous” video, as well as much of the shared visual output of the Kardashian-West media empire, wasn’t all Kanye, however, but also a twenty-something creative polymath by the name of Eli Russell Linnetz. Though a relative stranger in the broader media arena, he figures as one of its main instigators, having left a subtle but distinct fingerprint on American pop aesthetics in the last five years. As an image-, sound-, space- and garment-maker, he’s produced music and music videos for West, Teyana Taylor and Kid Cudi, devised set designs for Lady Gaga, worked for Woody Allen and Broadway doyen David Mamet, collaborated with Jordan Wolfson, done graphics for Comme des Garçons, and shot campaigns for Yeezy and Skims, as well as editorials with Hailey Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Carmen Electra and a newly pregnant Grimes.
Manic and myth-making, Linnetz’s work displays a natural gravitation towards the aesthetics of fame—its self-reflexivity, glamour and entertaining superficiality—but this is not a conscious theme or goal as such, he tells me one evening over the phone from his house-cum-studio in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. He speaks fast and in long monologues, and sometimes goes in circles, which he immediately notices and apologizes for. Born in Venice, where he still resides, works, and spends the vast majority of his time, his career is both a symptom and a representation of a particular localized nexus of Los Angeles’ creative industry. “The first film I made starred Steven Spielberg’s son and was screened at their house. That was just kind of the world I grew up in,” he remarks with no implied value judgment. He pauses, and adds: “I’m always just interested in people. I used to use photography as a way of social climbing, to meet people. Perhaps there’s an evil mischievousness to my work that exist within every celebrity. So I think we’re drawn together through that, and then the work is secondary.” Indeed, his photographic “style” is haphazard, playful and “casual,” even if it depicts some of the most famous people on the planet; the quotidian visuality of Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller spring to mind as aesthetic predecessors, only mixed with the rapaciousness of contemporary social media and a little bit of Los Angeles surrealism. But contrary to the well-rehearsed high-flash idiom of these older colleagues, there’s very little formal consistency in Linnetz’s work; rather, it seems to be always moving, frantically, between aesthetic codes, communication techniques, and levels of ironic legibility. “I feel like all I do has some sort of manic representation of what’s happening in the world, just based off the people I work with, these figureheads of our time,” he offers, as I prompt him about this fervent changeability. “I’ll look at something from like two weeks ago, and I’ll think, ‘Gosh, this is so irrelevant,’ whereas at the time I felt, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done.’” Such was the case in his work for social media and reality TV mogul Kim Kardashian, who tapped Linnetz soon after her 2018 Paris robbery to aid her in her return to Instagram. Scared of being labeled selfish and superficial, she was looking for “a new aesthetic,” a different visual narrative for her 150 million followers. Linnetz brought over a Polaroid camera and followed her and her growing family over the coming weeks. “I said, ‘I think it’s really cool if you try to not look at the camera.’ At the time, she used to only post selfies looking right into the camera, like everyone else.” The outcome was a long series of now-iconic (in the literal meaning of the word) images that momentarily returned Instagram to a pre-digital media aesthetic invoking the semiotics of authenticity and “behind the scenes”; you could hardly think of a more apt visual solution considering the context. “It’s never being hired for a task, but very organic between friends,” he explains of this unusual commission, which ultimately led to Kim’s now-emblematic (and much-copied) branding of her new shapewear adventure, Skims. “So it’s doing something like that, using art and textures and friendship to create something that has meaning. But then after that, lots of people starting doing that aesthetic, so then I was like, ‘Fuck, I’m only doing digital from now on!’”
Good “creative direction”—a term Linnetz admits he hates—is paradoxical, because it implies rendering one’s creative authorship as a service to enhance that of others, be it musicians, theatre productions, reality TV celebrities, brands or artists. Perfectly post-Fordist and multidisciplinary, and constantly balancing commercial, artistic and media spheres, the creative director is an emblem of our current cultural industry, where a wide range of old and new media technologies persistently collapse and converge different modes of aesthetic production, distribution and exchange. Linnetz’s own CV exemplifies this: initially a screenwriting student at USC, he paid his tuition by sewing costumes for the opera department, moving on to work on Broadway for David Mamet, where he was first tapped by Kanye. Since then, he’s acted as music producer, editor, photographer, screen writer, film director, stylist, designer—a list so long that it’s pointless to finish. Having stretched his own vision to countless others, he is painstakingly aware and unromantic about the business he operates in—even now, when he’s free to pick projects he’s actually interested in, presenting them under his own name. “Of course, one is always struggling between being an artist and being a business,” he reflects. “But I feel like a lot of time people confuse art with being starving or something. I love the concept of using art as something that translates to monetary gains—but more importantly, you can buy art to buy people time. If an artist is exploring a new era within themselves, a music video can buy them time to explore that. I’m mostly interested in using art to buy time and space to breathe.” This production-oriented pragmatism is distinct to the local art/entertainment industrial complex of LA, which, contrary to the East Coast, sports a more relaxed hybridity between art, fashion, branding, celebrity and entertainment. Linnetz, too, holds a presence in the art world (namely through collaborations with Jordan Wolfson and Jeff Koons, and friendships with David LaChapelle and Maurizio Cattelan), but is not too fussed about solidifying it. “It’s allowed me to meet really interesting people who exist in real pop space—not as a consumer, but as a creator,” he says with an unfazed self-assurance. He does gallery shows and photo books, but doesn’t have a gallery. “I’m more interested in just getting the ideas out in the world. I think there’s less pressure of being signed these days. It’s more about connection and friendship. Maybe it’s a photograph, a drawing, a TV show, a song. I feel like people are more interested in the ideas. I had met with a few art galleries, and at the end of the day, I was like ‘Fuck this, I’m so excited to put this out in the world by myself.’”
But “creative directing” also connotes a particular aesthetic production line, a form of aesthetic work that depends on the orchestration of a variety of others. Compared to the romantically solitary, low-fi myth of art-making, “producing” pop-cultural images (entertainment, fashion, music) is a collaborative, high-budget, and professionally structured practice, even when it’s aesthetically experimental. This too pervades Linnetz’s work: his other Kanye video, “Fade,” for example, featuring a glistening Teyana Taylor in an ecstatic solo dance ritual around an ‘80s gym set, is densely layered with aesthetic references to films such as Flashdance and The Fly, the album covers of ‘70s R&B group Ohio Players, Jean-Paul Goude’s images of Grace Jones, Dancing With the Stars, PornHub and the NBA. This package of aesthetic signification is no mere image, but rather the culmination of Linnetz’s direction alongside the cinematography of Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown), the styling of Renelou Padora (Kim Kardashian) and the art direction of Tino Schaedler (V for Vendetta, Daft Punk music videos, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). “Fade” is masterstroke of pop culture, one only realizable in and through the social and professional microcosm that is Hollywood. Not surprisingly, Linnetz cites his time working on Broadway for David Mamet as laying the blue print for his sociable work ethic: “You’re always wondering whether your show will close, this underlying threat of death under the horizon, but at the same time, it’s a family, and I think that’s something that doesn’t really exist anywhere else. So I feel like that desire for family and collaboration is in my bones, and when I enter other spaces, it’s with that knowledge.”
Of all of Linnetz’s stylized mythologies, it’s his native Venice Beach—its surfers, skaters, sun-kissed weirdos—that most saturate his output, and in particular, the photographic editorials for his recently founded namesake brand ERL. What began as a one-off design commission for the newly opened Dover Street Market LA led to a friendship with its CEO and creative director Adrian Joffe, and a chance to (finally) develop his very own universe through the medium of a fashion brand. Contrary to the glamourous absurdity conjured up in much of his work, ELR is saturated with a sense of good-natured nostalgia, a wardrobe comprised of highly approachable button-ups, shorts, hoodies and T-shirts in sentimental colors. (Think the Santa Monica swim team. Skaters. ‘90’s Pixar movies.) It’s almost so happy that it feels unnerving, perverse. “I feel I’ve spent most of my life working for other people up until relatively recently,” he explains. “I feel like this is a really special time for me, because the clothing brand is almost a time to meditate, almost in a healing way, you know? It’s an excuse to restore memories from my childhood and parts of growing up that I kind of forgot.” The casting—an indiscriminate flow of striking, charming, genuine faces—happens exclusively “among [his] neighbors, high-school classmates, and local surfer friends” in Venice Beach. “I feel like this good nature and humor is always in my work, but on the surface, it’s very genuine. I don’t really think of it as a product.” It certainly is, though. The line has a logo and a distinct teenage iconography, the latter devised by Jordan Wolfson. Once Nike got onboard, the capsule project became a real brand, and he’s currently developing a mainline, while his first fragrance will launch in July. Quite fluidly, he uses his ERL “editorials”—some of which do not even feature the actual clothing—as material for upcoming art exhibitions and “a few art books” that will be sold at DSM. “Art,” he summarizes, “is similar to designing clothing, insofar as it’s about having self-control. Success is about editing.”
For Linnetz, then, the world of Venice Beach figures as a kind of structure: an aesthetic mythology and real production site working to continuously imitate itself, with itself. In many ways, the idea of an aesthetic perpetually digesting itself—ironizing itself—couldn’t be more American. “I think it comes down to a confidence and brashness,” he explains. “I’m finally getting to the core of myself, which in a weird way which is actually very American. I actually feel like I’m very naïve sometimes. As provocative and voyeuristic as my work is, it’s also a lot about naïveté.” But of course, naïveté, I respond, can also be mobilized.