The landscape paintings are glimpses into a realm of solitary twilight. They represent states of mind triggered by place, season, weather, and hour. They are attempts to seize fleeting moments when form shifts and nature turns strangely unreal, when space both flattens and deepens, and the passage of time simultaneously quickens and slows. The pictures hover over borders: between fact and dream, between clarity and enigma, between substance and light. In combining such seemingly-irreconcilable forces, I seek to generate eerie beauty, hidden meaning, and mystery.
The exhibition NIGHT & DAY reveals the latest evolution in the rich oeuvre of David Loeb, who has been practicing figurative oil painting and drawing since his schooldays in the 1970’s. During his career Loeb has concentrated mainly on three painterly genres: still life, portraiture, and landscape – and on a fourth genre, a form of symbolist allegorical painting rooted in the late 19th century. Night and Day explores the last two genres.
The mood of the landscapes are undoubtedly linked to biographical and personal circumstances of the last two years, including the recent death of the artist’s mother. Their style, however, has its roots in the artist’s education and his knowledge and appreciation of a specifically American landscape tradition. The romantic aspects certainly reflect the oeuvre of the moody Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919) but are also in a larger sense tied to an American vision of the Sublime, a visionary quality evident in the work of the Hudson River School painters of the 19th century, notably George Inness, and in the lonely, light-filled landscapes of Edward Hopper in the 20th century. The rigor and precision of Loeb’s oil and pastel style also owes a lot to his American training. The evidence of close observation, precision in rendering, and a strong linear understructure in his compositions, might strike a Frenchman as quite different from the loose, more intuitive Impressionist manner. The delicacy of light, the carefully worked-up mat surfaces, and the mistier aspects of many of these landscapes are, however, inspired by the artist’s intimate knowledge of the French countryside, light, and art. Apparent in the pictures is the soft luminosity of Fontainebleau, the tougher mountainous rigor of the Jura, and also Loeb’s knowledge of European Post-Impressionist and Symbolist landscape: Seurat, Vuillard, Bonnard, Klimt, and Balthus.
The two principal allegorical paintings in the exhibition, Blue Moon Muse and Artist and Muses, also reveal a connection to the European Symbolist tradition. Their stillness and dreamy melancholy may seem more Nordic than French – Whistler and the Dane, Hammershøi, come to mind – though the beautifully delineated female nude models definitely tie the two pictures to the French tradition.
A genuine emotional sensibility combined with a well-thought-out and rigorous style make this group of paintings an altogether exceptional ensemble. In “Night and Day,” Loeb’s art has reached a new level of depth and maturity that reflect the artist’s age, experience, and true painterly commitment.
I encountered the nocturnal landscapes of the American painter Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) for the first time at the 2008 retrosprctive at the National Academy in New York. His other-worldly twilight realm felt hauntingly familiar. Blakelock beckoned me deeper into the night.
The paintings in this show portray a passage through darkness and out again to clarity and substance. The realism and formality of the Fontainebleau daytime landscape compositions appear at first to be at odds with the dark, romantic mood of the nocturnes and muse allegories but are in fact their complement. They were influenced by the ideas of British environmental scientist James E. Lovelock (born 1919, the year of Blakelock’s death), whose Gaia theory proposes that the Earth functions as a single living organism which self-regulates conditions necessary for its survival (possibly including the annihilation of humankind). For me, Lovelock and Blakelock represent opposite poles. Where Lovelock signifies daylight, observation, and invention, Blakelock connotes the night, dreaming, revelation.
The transition between night and day intrigues me most, the tricky moment of change when everything shifts and seems strangely real and meaningful. Space flattens and deepens. The pace quickens and slows. Time of day becomes ambiguous. My part is to combine and reconcile these opposing forces on every level in order to generate new possibilities.
Portraiture is one of the oldest and most complex subjects in art. Its complexity stems from its many functions. A portrait must usually provide a good “likeness” of the sitter and also define his social status (through attitude and costume), his own sense of himself but also the image he wants to project to others. Since the 19th century the modern portrait must also reveal personality and temperament, so has a psychological aspect too. At last, the painted portrait must, in order to seduce the onlooker and decorate the space it is intended for, function as a work of art too. And to be a work of art it must satisfy the artist as much as the client.
David Loeb’s great accomplishment in portraiture is that he covers all of the above fronts beautifully. In the Beaulieu-Peterson family portrait (2001) for instance, class is represented by the formal clothing and the rich, luminous blacks of the composition, which add weight and luxury to the portrait. Each figure’s position in the family and their personality is indicated by their placement in space. Jim Peterson stands in a dominant position as traditional head of the family, but with a casual and debonair air that expresses his sprightly personality. Kat Beaulieu sits more gravely, acting as anchor of both composition and the family and is visually connected to her daughter in the centre kneeling on the floor. Julie is placed below both parents’ authority but looking upwards in the most dynamic pose in the portrait. Her youthful energy and transitional age, between childhood and adolescence, is indicated by the unstable pose and sudden turning of the head. In this family portrait Loeb has not only defined each figure individually but also the social and psychological links between them and the dynamics of a specific family trio.
Loeb adapts his style and choice of colors and patterns to the specificities of every portrait subject. For the Rasmussen portrait (2005), the story of a late life romance and second marriage is told by the lush red roses, passion and drama indicated by the red and black contrasts, the location, which is Los Angeles, by the sleek dress and the slightly theatrical poses of the couple. The Simonard family portrait (2006), on the other hand with its cool colors, Renaissance backdrop and strict symmetry creates a much more formal effect, most appropriate to the image of a classic bourgeois French family. Monsieur Simonard is here placed in the center in a pleasant but definitely dominant position of the patriarch, his authority emphasized by the red tie. Though seated and in a classic evening dress, Madame Simonard, who is American and a practicing lawyer, competes for prominence with her husband. The confident expression, the equally powerful red of her dress and the imposing mass of her gown emphasize her position and energy.
Despite the differences between sitters and situations, all the portraits clearly carry the stamp of the artist’s style, turning them into genuine works of art. Meticulous compositions, the use of rich color and texture, and complex decorative patterns are all features also visible in Loeb’s still lives. Further enriching the portraits are the subtle references to art history and a carefully construed symbolism. The Simone Martini Annunciation in Kat Beaulieu’s portrait alludes to her Catholic faith. The Greek vase with the swan behind Kathleen Rasmussen emphasizes the sensuous and bacchic quality of her relationship with her husband. Loeb’s portrayal of his own family (Family I, 1995) references some of his favorite masters: Velasquez, Van Eyck, Balthus, and stands also as a definition of his artistic identity and vocation. His wife and children and his own reflection in the mirror seem suspended in the powdery light of the painting as if in a dream. A quality of both poetry and mystery augments their presence and seems to freeze time.
Careful intellectual and symbolic elaboration, fine visual construction and rich painterly surfaces define all of David Loeb’s portraits. Though the people and situations he depicts are all contemporary, the paintings themselves take on the sense of mystery and the timeless quality of great art.
David Loeb’s still lives are based on careful geometric compositions with an exquisite sensitivity to light. They are intimate paintings set in the meditative space of the artist’s studio. They explore a great variety of objects, surfaces and materials to perfection: fabric, porcelain, metal, flower petals, leaves, stones, fish scales and feathers. The choice of the objects and their shapes, some seemingly male, others female, reveal, beyond the beauty of the surfaces and colors, a symbolic theatre in which hidden meanings and moods invest the various objects as if they were actors on a painterly stage. This symbolic quality makes the still lives come alive as mysterious presences.
His technique in pastel is particularly impressive. A medium which is seldom used in contemporary art, pastel allows for a special delicacy in the rendering of light and confers on the still lives a soft powdery glow which accentuates their oneiric quality. About his work, the artist says: “The seemingly-predictable convention of still life painting barely masks a world of paradox and metaphor. The paintings explore fleeting boundaries between opposing forces: density and weightlessness, flatness and space, ephemerality and timelessness, emptiness and humanity.”