Seeing What Sticks: Doron Langberg & Gaby Collins-Fernandez
Doron Langberg & Gaby Collins-Fernandez at Danese/Corey
November 20 to December 23, 2015
511 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 223-2227
Doron Langberg and Gaby Collins-Fernandez, two painters who are friends, are recent graduates of Yale University’s M.F.A. program. Because they are surprisingly different artists, this handsomely installed show in a major Chelsea gallery offers a very instructive way to compare and contrast their achievements. Langberg, a figurative painter, represents both men and women. The style of his Mark and Aubrey (2015) alludes to R. B. Kitaj’s, but thankfully without that artist’s weighty allegories; his Gaby, Julia and Amy (2015) depicts three women lounging in a studio. And some of his pictures show men in erotic settings—Tom #2 (2015) is a good example. Collins-Fernandez, who usually works on a smaller scale, superimposes texts and fabrics on colorful fields. Sometimes, as in Blue Velvet SMILE HUNNI (2014), she uses her fabrics to extend the painting beyond the frame, an effect that recalls Color Field painter Sam Gilliam. But often, as in Yellow Spiral TO BE A MAN . . . (2014), she creates compact synthesis of words and abstract patterns. Fabrics are demonstrably a great subject (and material) for a painterly painter.
One way to bring this exhibition by two marvelous young artists into focus is to reflect, briefly, on the nature of art criticism. Traditionally there are two branches of art writing: art history, which looks to art of the past that has already been written about; and art criticism, which responds to contemporary art. When dealing with older art, discussion needs to take into account prior writing, even if only to modify or reject its claims. In our art world, where famous living artists are much written about, mid-career figures are treated as if they were familiar old masters. But when describing absolutely contemporary art, like Langberg’s and Collins- Fernandez’s, writing must proceed from scratch, guided only by looking, aided by published or spoken commentary by the artists. Such artists, such is my experience, pose the greatest challenge to writers. In an interview in the Brooklyn Rail with Jarrett Earnest, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Langberg and Collins-Fernandez talk about each other’s work. This dialogue, from which I am borrowing, nicely illustrates how artists can provide a significant context for first-time viewers of their painting.
A binary opposition, a familiar tool of art historians, provides a marvelously suggestive way of understanding this exhibition. Because Langberg wants to make self-sufficient paintings, he takes the canvas rectangle as a given, whereas Collins-Fernandez supplements her pigments with both fabrics and words, inserting alien materials into paintings. His mostly larger paintings dominate the front room at Danese/Corey, while her relatively smaller pictures are in the back room. But in between, two of their paintings are juxtaposed, and so we may allow, then, the juxtaposition in the middle gallery of his Shoes with her The Time is too late now, both paintings made in 2015, to define their differences. Here in one of Langberg’s smaller paintings, even when no human figures are present, the shoes, discarded on a lovely textured carpet, signal a human presence. Collins-Fernandez’s words, painted in black on black velvet, barely stand out over her darkly colored, abstract-looking spiral. In the Langberg picture, where the top of one shoe is cut off at the right edge, we view a fragmented scene, as if looking from off center, a device followed in some of his portraits, too. By contrast, although Collins-Fernandez centers both image and words, the meaning of this phrase is far from clear—too late for what, we might ask?
A little suspicious of the intrinsic power of visual images, Collins-Fernandez finds a world in which people and things are identified primarily by how they look unpleasant. And so, in response, she turns to words, gathered from overheard city conversations, and fabrics, materials that have a very different visual identity. It’s no doubt relevant that Langberg trained as visual artist, while Collins-Fernandez started out as a student of literature and writing. Her materials, she rightly says, “produce a density of emotion and meaning which I am interested in reproducing in my paintings.” Here of course she joins a long tradition of art drawing upon the contemporary urban environment. Langberg, on the other hand, wants that his paintings be presentations of visual desire. Not just of his personal desires—rather, “I want my work to speak of things we all share such as friendship, intimacy, and pleasure.”
In setting up this opposition between Langberg and Collins-Fernandez, however, I do not mean to underestimate their common concerns. When Collins-Fernandez says, “you put a lot of yourself out there to see what will stick,” I believe that she speaks for both of them.