The Redemption of Damian Loeb
NEW YORK— On the eve of fashion week in February 2000, New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante described painter Damian Loeb as living "at the nexus of art and fashion." The artist, she wrote, "plans to see as many shows as his fashion photographer friends invite him to this season." Eleven years, a marriage, and two children later, Loeb's social life is slightly less fashionable and radically more subdued. "I haven't even been to a gallery opening in two or three years," said the artist, sitting on a white couch smoking a cigarette in his Tribeca studio. Loeb's new work certainly reflects this isolation. The nine paintings that comprise his new show at the Upper East Side's Acquavella Galleries are all based on photographs he's taken of his wife over the last six years.
A high-school dropout and self-taught painter, Loeb began his career creating what might be called "appropriation images" — hyperrealist paintings of collages made from photos he plucked from magazines, books, and movies. Up until now, however, Loeb's career trajectory and social life have received arguably more buzz than his artwork. In 1997, he was snatched up by heat-seeking then-dealer Jeffery Deitch — a rare coup for a 25-year-old unschooled artist who had barely shown in the United States. A year later, however, Deitch let him go without ever giving him a show, spooked by one too many copyright infringement suits.
Loeb then switched over to Mary Boone and showed with her consistently until 2003. ("No artist ever ends up looking good switching galleries," Loeb said.) After a five-year hiatus from commercial shows in New York — during which he continued to exhibit with galleries in Boston and Cologne and sell work periodically through Boone — the newly publicity-shy painter resumed in 2008 with an exhibition at Acquavella Galleries. "I knew I wanted to show with them for the rest of my life," said Loeb of Acquavella, whose stable also boasts Loeb's favorite living painter and, at times, fellow hyperrealist, Lucien Freud.
Despite early commercial success — Loeb's paintings have been purchased by boldface names such as Elton John and Mike Nichols for up to $50,000 — the artist struggled to earn critical respect. His early work was criticized as empty and bland. (Jerry Saltz wrote that his 1999 show at Mary Boone "lacked real invention or imagination," while the New York Times damned a 2000 show with faint praise, calling it "pleasant.") Other critics, however, have recognized promise in his work. Flavorpill lauded Loeb's 2003 show as a study in "controlled grace," while Paper Magazine called his paintings "jewellike"; a 2008 review on Artnet said Loeb had the potential to become a "21st-century Turner." Though his forthcoming exhibition at Acquavella is said to already be sold out at prices ranging from $150,000 to $250,000, Loeb's gauge to consider it a personal success is whether it garners even one positive review from "a critic I halfway respect," he said. After a pause, he reconsidered: "In the end, though, I don't really care what the critics say."
Chastened by his gantlet of controversies, the painter has stripped his latest work of appropriated imagery and pop culture references; his own photography is now his subject. "You have to start shooting your own stuff when you keep getting sued," he explained matter-of-factly. After teaching himself digital photography several years ago, Loeb began to shoot constantly — "on vacation, at home, everywhere," he said. The result is a trove of 200,000 photographs from which he continually selects images to digitally alter and then render on canvas. The whole process, according to Loeb, takes approximately six months. (This lengthy process has frustrated former dealers, and led to rumors that the artist had quit painting for a period. Loeb, however, insists that he has worked constantly throughout his life.)
The new images, all focused on his wife, model Zoya Todorovic, are Loeb's most private and intimate to date. Loeb captures his subject watching TV in the dark, her face illuminated by the flatscreen; reading in bed in a navy blue t-shirt; and talking on the phone in a shadowy office (inexplicably nude). Some images — like a painting of Todoravic in bed holding up her hand to the light, wedding ring glistening — are gentle. Most, however, retain the sense of uncomfortable voyeurism that characterized Loeb's earlier work. "I'll always be interested in violence, I think," remarked Loeb. His new images often place the viewer in the position of an intruder, peeking at his wife taking a shower from behind a shadowy screen or peering down at her from the foot of the bed.
Indeed, Loeb resists the notion that this work presents a profoundly new direction. "It all looks the same to me," he said. In both his earlier appropriation images and his latest work, he explained, "I'm interested in moments — in dissecting them in a controlled environment." He bristles when the term photorealism is used to describe his paintings — his goal, he said, is to duplicate a memory rather than a photograph. "I use transparency and pigment to emphasize something photos can't."
But even Loeb won't deny that the evolution of his personal life seems to have found its way into his paintings. After half a decade as a very public figure — he was engaged to British fashion writer Plum Sykes for a time, and was a prominent fixture of gossip columns due to his roguery — Loeb has now turned both his personal and artistic focus inward. Part of his new interest in home life, he said, comes from a desire to spend time with his wife and young children after being less present for the upbringing of his eldest son. If the old adage, "write what you know," can be applied to painting, perhaps it is not Loeb's painting that's changed, but rather what he knows best.