There’s a slippage in Doron Langberg’s 2015 painting, Sleep. The sole figure is gently sliding out of the piece on a current of sleep—but sleep here is something more than unconsciousness; it is like an emanation, suggestive of weight and transfiguration– and the frame follows him. The motion is smooth, not to jostle him awake. I think of the River Lethe – where cleansing is forgetting – and the souls that float in circles around Hades once they’ve sloughed off their dirty membranes of memory.
The figure floats over impossible distances and depths. The indigo stains of oil could be miles of hazy dusk. And yet, there is nothing illusionistic about the elements such that, when your eye gets to the unfinished edges of exposed white ground, the space rockets forward and the paint is just paint. The same play exists in the pumice-like patches of turf that ring the figure. They ground him – literally introducing an earth element – in the inconstant, liquid space. Yet, in the next moment, they separate from the scene like oil from water and you feel you could peel them away.
The man in Sleep is radiant. Not in the tongue-in-cheek way we are used to when seeing a naked man laid out in an Olympia-esque pose. This isn’t about retribution for centuries of hijacking the female gaze or a conscious upending of traditional roles. Moreover, this is not an androgynous, delicate man who bridges gender. It is a portrait of a solid, hairy, masculine man: beloved, one imagines, in the eyes of the painter.
There is a layered chaos to Sleep. It’s impossible to know how each mark was made. Scraped away paint excavates lower layers that shine through. Large strokes, scrubbed textures, and piled pigment create a disordered complexity. The chaos of the paint, no doubt created though chance and repetition, reads, at points, as dimples on the water or the uneven terrain of skin. Despite the wild, scumbled surface, Langberg’s skill is such that we believe in the vitality of the figure and the space. We know that, under those rough, hasty marks, the scene exists in all of the intricacies of life. It is as if the act of painting were a hasty rubbing over of the real to make it visible to us, as a scholar might make a rubbing of a tombstone.
There is a dichotomy between rootedness and un-tethering in most of Langberg’s paintings in his current two-person show with Gaby Collins-Fernandez at the Denese/Corey Gallery in Chelsea. In the piece Mark and Aubrey, the foreground figure’s torso is grounded in a domestic, familiar space but by the time your eye has traveled down to the foot, the leg has shifted into sepia tone and is from some other time. I believe this rings true to how we all experience place – sometimes our homes embrace us and other times we are haunted by the uncanny, which whispers we are frauds, our walls are façades. “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!”
Artists have their own lenses through which they filter the world around them – from photorealism, to gesture, chiaroscuro, or expressionist mark making. Langberg seems to have a heat sensor, as if we are looking through a thermal imaging lens. The subject pulses at points of high energy and desire. Temperature reins supreme both in terms of warm and cool tones as well as passion. Sleep is washed over with cold water and burns from the inside out. Warm light spills from the body and plays on the reflective surfaces, as fire would. There is no irony here, no social critique: Langberg makes this piece with all the tools of a magician and the heart of a lover.