Queer Israeli artist Doron Langberg’s paintings are all softly rendered reflections of his lovers, friends, and family. His exhibit at 1969 Gallery, Nothing Personal, focuses on queer perspective and, contrary to the title, interpersonal relationships.
We sat down with him to talk about color, artistic control, and communication through queer art.
OUT: You started painting when you were six. How’d you get into it?
Doron Langberg: I feel like everybody paints when they’re six years old, right? I just never stopped painting. It’s funny because my dad is an academic, and he traveled to the States for a convention and went to an art store and was like, ‘Oh, my son’s a painter, what should I get him?’
He bought me an oil paint set when I was six. What does a six-year-old do with oil paint and turpentine and all those things? That was how I started. My family was really supportive of me painting — they found materials for me and really engaged with me.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
The two most important sources of inspiration for me are other painters and my community around me. The subject matter comes directly from my life, so all of my ideas come from interacting with my friends, lovers, family members, and the circle of people that are closest to me in my life.
In terms of artistic influences, it’s people that I’ve related to for years and years. People like Van Gogh, who was my first love as a painter; or Avigdor Arikha, who’s actually an Israeli painter that lived in Paris most of his life. I remember seeing his show when I was 13 at the Israeli museum and thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to do!’
Also Bonnard and Vuillard, two French Nabis painters. Their work is super intimate and deals with domestic scenes where the figures are integrated into their environment, and that’s where the emotional or psychological charge of the paintings come from. You can see similar strategies in my work. A lot of queer art has influenced my work, too. People like Wolfgang Tillmans and David Hockney who deal with sexuality in a really direct way, but also have this really light touch in terms of the subject matter. There’s a kind of a freedom to their work.
Teufelssee, 2017. Oil on linen. 60x70 inches. Courtesy of Doron Langberg.
They’re not pigeonholed.
Exactly. They’re able to represent and encompass their entire worlds. Their sexualities are woven into it in a really beautiful, touching way. That was always really inspiring for me.
I watched a video where you were talking about the painter Bonnard and how much you like his work, but, unlike him, you like to use only a few different colors. In your new exhibition, the paintings have tons of color. Have you expanded your palette more?
Yeah! I think color was probably the hardest thing about painting. When I was an undergrad, I stopped working in color and even oil paint. The tradition of the medium was so overbearing. It was inspiring, but I couldn’t find my own voice within it.
I [decided to] take a break from painting and just think about mark making and subject matter and work just with drawing — to really develop my identity as an artist outside of painting. When I got to grad school, I started working with color again. I graduated six years ago, and I think only in the last year, probably within this show, is when I’ve really felt more comfortable with color.
Thank you. Before this, I felt I could only juggle a few colors because there are the various textures in the paintings and different ways of mark making — there were all these elements that I was trying to play with. I couldn’t add too many colors into the mix and still feel like I was in control. But now, I have a better grasp of how to use color and what I want the color to do in the painting.
Does it feel like you’ve gained control? Or have you let go the entire concept of having control?
Wow. Good question! I think it’s probably both. The more you paint, the better painter you are. You can pull off more things. Maybe not having to have such a tight grip on what’s going on and being more open to the process itself is also a part of maturing as a painter.
You’ve said that art has trends and shifts and that you don’t really pay attention to those anymore. How do you perceive them now that you have more of a platform for your work?
I think the way that the art world moves through trends is really motivated by capital. There are positive sides to that and negative sides to that, but it’s not at all related to artists’ practices. As artists, we have our own trajectory that’s really personal. You’re mining your own interests, subjects, and identity — that’s where the work is coming from. The art world changes trends every five or ten years, but those two things operate separately.
Right now, for example, there’s a lot more attention on figurative painting. This visibility introduces new kinds of practices, bringing a new crop of young artists into public consciousness. I think we’re all just trying to find a balance between our own practice and reacting to what’s going on in the world.
Zachary, 2018. Oil on linen. 45x45 inches. Courtesy of Doron Langberg.
Is there anything in particular you want viewers to take away from your paintings? Or is it more about your relationship to your work?
For me, when I look at paintings I love — if we’re talking about Van Gogh, for example. I get such a strong feeling of who he was. I get an insight into Van Gogh’s inner life. Whether it’s through a pair of shoes or flowers or a portrait, it’s an affirmation humanity and, if it’s a portrait, the humanity of whoever he’s painting.
Or with someone like Alice Neel, who I adore. She’s one of the best American painters who has ever lived. For her, it’s as much an exploration of the person in front of her as it is an exploration of her own interiority. To me, that’s the most exciting thing about painting. That’s where I see the politics in my work.
Because it’s very queer.
Exactly. If someone, regardless of their sexuality, can relate to my work and see their own experience in it, that’s an opportunity to humanize queerness.
How do you think queer art has evolved in recent years? What do you see in its future?
Queer work is different. It’s related to the art world, but it’s mostly related to politics and the perception of queerness in society. A good friend of mine wrote an article about my work and other painters’ work, and the way that he framed it is that, for the generation of artists that lived through the AIDs epidemic, queerness was intimately tied to death and loss.
Our generation of queer artists have a different experience of queerness. We grew up in totally different worlds, so the art reflects that. A good example of that is Felix González-Torres. For him, the idea of coding and hiding as a survival mechanism is inherent to their work. They couldn’t be out. They were just fighting for their lives and today, it’s a different world. We’re dealing with different challenges. We have the allowance to talk about a broader range of queer experiences.