On ViewVictoria Miro
September 3 – November 6, 2021
There is a man floating in the bathtub. Iridescent violet, red, and ochre seem to seep from his pores into the sultry waters below, staining the porcelain bath and tiles. We feel the humidity pressing in, as if someone has just pulled the bathroom door shut. The air is intoxicating and close; we could be in the midst of a fever dream.
Israeli-born, New York-based artist Doron Langberg (b. 1985) has made a reputation painting images of overt sex and quiet affection that center upon his queer community. Langberg’s sensual world, in flaming technicolor and gestural abandon, is occupied by his closest family and friends. Much has been made of Langberg’s relationship with the 19th century French Intimists, such as Pierre Bonnard, who painted humble moments of domestic life, like his wife Marthe similarly soaking in the tub. Langberg captures his own scenes of domesticity that are radical in their erotic charge as well as their mundanity.
The notion of domestic life crucially took on new meaning for Langberg during the COVID-19 pandemic, when, during lockdown, he converted half of the living room in his one-bedroom New York apartment into a studio. Although Langberg did not find the notion of staying home itself challenging, he knew he had to change the way in which he worked. Ordinarily, Langberg would paint from life, inviting a friend to the studio or going to their apartment to make a small study that would later be scaled up. During COVID, Langberg returned to an approach he had developed as a graduate student at Yale, when the drawings from video stills of himself with other men had been the inspiration he needed to focus on queer life. From his apartment, Langberg began to draw from photographs, or paint the only model that remained available—his husband Andrew. Perhaps that is why Bather (2021) feels so otherworldly—Langberg’s vision of everyday life is tainted by the invisible foe outside; his haven has become both home and studio.
Langberg has spoken of how his exuberant material reflects the emotional and physical subjects of his paintings. Frenzied washes of color and pools of luscious paint contribute to specific sensations, atmospheres, and relationships. While Langberg is known for his “dick portraits,” as he wryly calls them, the works in his first solo show with Victoria Miro in London edge towards something more universal. The stroke of paint on linen is indelibly linked to the experience of lockdown—the craving for skin against skin and the longing for home. Langberg’s paintings speak to the soaring highs and crashing lows of the pandemic, their soft edges like the images of an old normal that is just out of reach.
The entwined lovers of In My Lap (2021) claw at the memory of romance. A sweltering orgy of flesh in Friends 2 (2021) appears abstract at first, before frantic hands and sexual appendages come into view. Some paintings speak to a more familial form of connection, while others conjure intimacy through the very absence of people. The bucolic scene Yokneam (2021) is divided by three imposing cypress trees; the guardians of a melancholy landscape now emptied of human life.
Langberg began this body of work in 2020, shortly after his sister had passed away from cancer, and Langberg was separated from his family in Israel. In Sister (2021), she appears as a luminous memory, her edges blurred as if moving from this world into the next. In Brothers (2021), Langberg shows himself and his siblings on a hike in the Menashe mountains, the artist crouches among the crimson wildflowers. Just as Langberg conveys erotic and familial ardor through his paint, the tempestuous, unmoored marks of the brush evoke grief.
The title of Langberg’s show, Give Me Love, is a riff on the eponymous pop song by the Swedish singer Robyn. Now in the framework of the pandemic, her snappy lyrics reverberate with torment. “I’ll give you my heart/If you just give me love/Every day and every night/Show me love/Show me life,” she croons. With Robyn’s words in our ears, Langberg’s paintings seem their own cry for love from the isolation of lockdown.
As we gain distance from the pandemic and crawl back to the lives we once knew, it falls to artists, writers, and musicians to help us process the shared trauma—just as Hugo Ball wrapped himself in cardboard and performed nonsensical sound poems at the Cabaret Voltaire after the outbreak of the First World War and Alberto Giacometti whittled his figures down to their extreme after the Second. Through the eyes of a rising generation of figurative painters—amongst them, Jennifer Packer, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Salman Toor—we can perhaps begin to make sense of it all. Langberg’s paintings help us to reflect and come to terms with the intimacies we have all been so desperately missing.