Why don’t we just accept that art history is one long, looping conversation in a haunted house, with so many vivid voices belonging to currently dead people? Is it weird that we still talk to them?—and to each other?—and about them and each other? Of course not—that is just what art is. Plus: what else is there to talk about? (Answer: SEX!) Personally, I love that the chattiness of artworks is partly the residue of countless hours shared by friends talking over absinthe and espresso. But the point is: artists like talking with each other, both through words and through work—if you stumble into one of these conversations in the wild just count yourself lucky and try not to scare it away. Two young artists actively engaged in this kind of late-night art arguing are the painters Doron Langberg and Gaby Collins-Fernandez, who have a two-person exhibition up at Danese/Corey Gallery (November 20 – December 23), letting the public enter the layered conversation of art. I met with them in their adjoining studio spaces to try and capture some of the words that underlie their painterly dialogue. —JE
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): To begin, it seems that Doron’s paintings create an inner world, which corresponds to our world and pulls us into the picture psychologically; whereas Gaby’s paintings set in motion a chain of associations that move outward, through their materials and forms—like the cheap crushed red velvet, for instance—towards references outside the painting. That is one of the reasons why Doron’s paintings can take the rectangle of the canvas as a given, and Gaby’s never do.
Langberg: Yes, Gaby’s work does reach out toward the world with art historical and visual references, words, materials, and color relationships. These are sometimes almost illusionistic within the abstract context she sets up; for example, when painted areas mimic how light falls on the actual velvet in the piece. In my work, the starting point is the world: my relationship with a person, something I saw, or an experience I had. Then it goes deeper and deeper into a painting world, which translates our phenomenological experiences into something that can only happen in painting language. I feel that your work, Gaby, moves in the opposite direction: it starts out with formal constructs from painting that then become embedded in the outside world through the relationship between the elements in each painting.
Collins-Fernandez: Well, for me, one of the most unexpected elements of Doron’s work is the psychological quality of the interiors, created not only by color but by the facial expressions of the figures, which seem to be both related and unrelated to the pose. In Tyler (2014), this young man’s face is expectantly melancholy in a way that does not necessarily fit his sexualized position. There is also a disjunction between how his hand and his splayed leg are painted, so each limb occupies a different emotional reality. This creates a psychological space that has a lot to do with the complications of power relationships, being observed, comfort, and sensitivity.
Even in paintings that look serene, like Sleep (2014), where your feet are painted as though they are being licked by waves, suddenly there is this blanket. Now, in my experience of “blankets” they fall somewhere in between soft and itchy, but they are never rock-like and hard, as you depicted it. The figure looks like it’s in a comfortable pose, but then the feet, which are painted as very tender things, and actually the composition itself, are held in place by what looks like rocks, which would be painful. That creates a complication: this image, at first immediately understandable as a serene painting, becomes gritty, rough, and not an easily recognizable psychological experience.
Rail: Doron, when I first met you a few years ago, all of your work was explicitly sexual—compositions that center on men showing their assholes, or other enticements of gay sex. These new paintings are interiors occupied by mostly clothed, lounging people. Can you describe your evolution in that regard?
Langberg: Earlier, I was more narrowly interested in love, queer sexuality, and desire, which all seemed to come together in images of sexual encounters. In thinking about vulnerability, awkwardness, tenderness, using a sexual image can be a powerful vehicle. But those terms are now becoming more expanded for me; I have a fuller understanding of what intimacy is, and I am seeing how more complex emotions can find homes in different imagery. Now they are mostly paintings of friends, objects, and spaces. I’m increasingly interested in trying to describe a world with a broader emotional range. You can have an emotional or intimate connection with objects that surround you—shoes thrown on the carpet, or a certain light situation, like when it’s just dark enough that the colors start to disassociate from their objects. Before, I folded a whole range of emotional and sensorial information into explicit imagery in the work and also personally, whereas now I can identify parts of what drew me to that subject matter in different places.
Rail: How do both of you see your work as embodying particular attitudes toward painting? Doron, I often feel that your work pushes harder toward abstract or formal elements than toward images. In the new works in this show there is so much attention and love poured onto the patterns—like the rug in Gaby Julia and Amy (2015)—attention to the abstract forms that surge up over the images. In many cases you have a figure being washed over with big swathes of color—how do you see the relation of the figure or image to the paint as paint, or patterned surface?
Langberg: Images are extremely strong: if I want there to be a dialogue between image and surface, or image and color, I need to try and find ways to make the image not quite as dominant, so the two can speak on equal terms. I also feel that what excites me in looking at other paintings is the materiality, gesture, and color—that is what creates the emotional world of the painting. The image is there to situate you and hold you within its environment.
What is fascinating to me about Gaby’s work is the way it looks like it might come from a disbelief in painting, or be about undermining the history of painting. On a first encounter there is casualness to the work, maybe in relation to “bad painting,” in terms of what it looks like and how it’s put together. Once you’re engaged in looking at them though, the formal relationships become so complex it’s clear there is nothing casual about Gaby’s paintings. In one of the more memorable conversations I had with you, Gaby, we were talking about Baroque or Renaissance paintings, and you said how you loved them but are wounded by them. There is a dual relationship that necessitates a rejection on one hand, and a total submission on the other—you really give yourself over—
Collins-Fernandez: To flesh that out: I was thinking a lot about this in terms of painting and belief. I had just gotten back from Italy and I had to come to terms with the fact that Caravaggio and Piero, for example, were Christians. Whether or not they were orthodox according to their time—which Piero maybe was and Caravaggio certainly wasn’t—they nonetheless believed. It’s not just because Saint Matthew was such a great story that Caravaggio made those paintings—he is not just trying to make you believe in painting, he’s trying to make you believe in God. This was a part of the work that explicitly excluded me—and looking at art history you can draw those lines of exclusion at many other points related to identity: straightness, whiteness, maleness, down the list. If you really love art you have to accept that your love of art is going to come up against these incredibly human, contextual elements of distancing and exclusion. Like: I’m not represented by this painting—this may be a painting of a woman, but this is not a painting that includes me as a woman within its vision of its audience.
Langberg: That’s interesting because when I look at painting, even if the desire represented is not my desire I can still relate to it as desire, which is also my attitude in my work.
Part of why I wanted to do this show together is because our work represents such completely different interpretations of art history, but from a similar position of engagement. We hope because the works look immediately different, it can highlight the overlapping sensibilities and concerns, and deepen a conversation about content.
Rail: I think those differences are as interesting as the ways they are alike. How else do you see each other’s work as being in opposition; what kind of light does that shed in both directions?
Collins-Fernandez: I’d say figuration is the biggest knife between us.
Rail: What do you mean by figuration?
Langberg: One of our first important conversations was about exactly this: what is the difference between figuration and abstraction? And although at first, the presence of the figure, or something identifiable, was the line we drew, over time we started talking more about what Gaby calls “modes of representation.”
Collins-Fernandez: We have talked a lot about how different elements in a painting can be “representational” in different ways: for example, a mark, whether it’s part of an abstract or a figurative framework, can be an index of a body, a gesture indicating an attitude, a unit in rendering. Likewise, figurative “signs” in paintings have meaning beyond the image: we recognize how they are used colloquially, art historically, in personal experience, etc. This is true for all the choices we make in our work. Doron’s reasons for painting figures are very particular and come out of a conversation he wants to have about bodies. It turns out that the reasons I’m not a figurative painter, which are explicit and intentional, are also related to a kind of conversation I want to have about bodies. This has to do with motivation, or what are read as motivations: for Doron, the figure, and its attendant desires, create a kind of permisssiveness to make the work. For my art, although there are a lot of possibilities for permissiveness—color, texture, imagery, language—I decided that I did not want to paint figures because I thought that representation was oppressive. I didn’t want to create a world where things or people are identified primarily by what they look like visually, because my experience of that in my own life has not been pleasant.
Rail: Without being reductive, it sounds like you are saying that one difference between your approaches to making is very gendered. Doron is a gay Israeli man, so there is a lot of complexity about what it means to be desired and represented, but ultimately those are different dynamics from what it means to be a woman in that position. Another important difference is that Doron went through a traditional art-apprenticeship education from childhood, while you, Gaby, studied literature and writing before switching to painting rather late in college. I wonder how that informs your feelings about what it means to make paintings.
Langberg: I’ve had about twenty years of official artistic education, and a lot of it was quite traditional—learning how to paint and draw from observation. Pursuing this kind of education came from my deep desire to work representationally, but it was accompanied by an anxiety of being subsumed by it. The more skillful I became, the more I wanted to detach myself from what I was learning and carve out space for my own identity as a painter—creating my own language both beyond and within an understanding of craft and history.
Collins-Fernandez: One effect is that my understanding of scale is really literary. I want the paintings to operate on the terms of a complicated sentence or a short poem: subject, verb, and predicate, maybe a couple of adjectives. I think about the work as a completed thought, not a treatise. It’s about limiting the amount of information I can tell; by keeping it short I know I can make a number of paintings where I am saying something in each one and not repeating myself—that comes from a writing and reading background, not from learning how to paint.
I think this idea about literary scale doesn’t seem so outlandish if we think of the relationship between genre and scale: for example how still-life has a particular size, and history painting has a particular kind of size, etc.—which of course gets broken down around the turn of the century forevermore, but still underlies a lot of our expectations and interactions with scale. The expectation that art is now site-specific rather than genre-specific really has changed the relationship between format and subject matter.
Langberg: Right, and when you are working representationally your decisions will always be in relation to size of the thing you are representing.
Rail: Doron, your figures are all more-or-less life-size—how, then, do you consider scale?
Langberg: There are two issues of scale in my work—one is the scale of the subject, and the other is the scale of the mark. Making the figures life-size allows for the marks to have a more physical relationship to the figure. When you are working small, the brushstroke has a greater impact—you expect small paintings to have a certain kind of looseness. The gestures take on a different weight at a larger scale where you can have a one-to-one relationship not only with the figures but with my body as I make these marks.
Rail: But it seems like you spend a lot of energy making your marks mysterious: usually they are layered or processed or disguised. How has your painting language evolved in that direction?
Langberg: You’re right that sometimes the marks are very direct and other times they are mediated through several processes, so it is unclear how they are made—but they always have a specific physicality. I think of them almost as emotional notes: something that is rubbed or scuffed and something that is extremely fast and fresh affect the viewer differently. I used to work with a more collaged sensibility, where each section had a different tenor, but now I’m more interested in integrating all those zones together to create a unified experience.
Rail: Is it important that the process become visually legible in your work?
Collins-Fernandez: In both our work, there is a distance but it’s not created through the hand. I think both Doron and I wear our hearts on our brushes. One thing that is also interesting about the work together is that neither one of us has a light touch. Neither one of us has a particularly cool affect. On a scale of hot and cool, both Doron and I tend to run hot, and with that comes a certain hotness of hand.
Rail: To return to this again in a larger sense, do you see this hotness as relating to sexuality and sensuality?
Collins-Fernandez: People like to read “surface” in relation to sexiness—that is partly because sex is about touch. If we say that Doron’s work is about desire, and that becomes present in the relation between the viewer and the painting, then in my work I am trying to create desirous relationships between forms, so that desire occurs internally within the work. Some of that is explicit and kind of dumb, like using forms from my drawings of Picasso’s “kiss” paintings from the ’30s that look like monsters making out. Those seem to be true to both kisses I’ve seen, like in the subway, and some I’ve experienced in life.
Rail: Gaby, can you talk about your new series of digital-collage drawings?
Collins-Fernandez: One reason why these new photo-collages have been so positive for me is that they make room for my sources. They help to locate the visual vocabulary of the fabric works more concretely in the world. All of the images I’m using are pictures I’ve taken—whether they are photos on the street of people I don’t know, or of friezes in other countries, or images I’ve taken of computer screens. These are then combined and messed around with on Photoshop in ways that resemble my painting process. I then print them out of fuzzy paper, on top of which I draw. Being able to see all of my sources in relation to each other, I’ve been able to group things thematically—it turns out I have a lot of pictures of stuff getting bitten, of subway couples, and of pictures of sharks. The way they relate to the paintings makes clear what both of you have said, where form is not about a kind of reduction but about a generation that takes pictorial information I’ve seen and then allows them to proliferate in their meanings.
Langberg: But I think there is something in terms of sexuality in your work: I think you make really raunchy paintings—
Collins-Fernandez: Really! I’ll take it!
Langberg: Yes, in terms of their relation to materiality. There is a raunchiness to the touch—almost an explicitness. As a joke, I’ve said they are like the sexuality of a subway flasher—there are elements of shock and discovery and desire and disgust. . . .
Collins-Fernandez: [Laughs.] I’ve been thinking about flirtation in the work. But the directness of the subway flasher definitely appeals to me. Look, I’m terrible at being coy—a long time ago I made a decision that never will I ever make a “To His Coy Mistress”-type painting. When you’re flirting, you don’t know what someone else likes but you can leave space for the other person’s interests and also put a lot of yourself out there to see what will stick, while winking and flashing your shoulder—trying to figure out what the ingredients for chemistry are, and where the reaction is, so you can follow the heat. I think that has a lot to do with good flirting and with good painting.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.