Out of Context, Without Consent
Damian Loeb is one very controversial artist. Meaning his new show will surely sell out. You'd think he'd be delighted, right? Wrong. There is a very pesky lawsuit plaguing the young man about town.
On March 31 Damian Loeb, at 30 perhaps Manhattan's most controversial artist, will show what some say promises to be his best exhibition yet, at Mary Boone's Chelsea gallery.
Viewers may blink for a second or two at the 14-foot canvases, their memories stirred by something oddly familiar in these compelling scenic images. In the past, Loeb has appropriated images from advertisements or photographs and decontextualized them. In these paintings, he has taken sequential stills from various famous Hollywood movies- including Rain Man, The Graduate, Boogie Nights, and The Omen- compressed them, stripped them of their protagonists, and found narrative and emotion in the chronology of their backgrounds, now foregrounds. Each canvas has two points of interest, so the eye goes from one to the other, as in a traditional diptych. For example, in a painting based on the cult "bathroom" scene in The Shining we see the entire hotel suite and, next to it, a distant bathroom, its door ajar to let us glimpse a naked woman.
The work, though blatant, unapologetic appropriation, has been called so subtly, darkly emotional that even some of the creators of the original movies have come to see it. Says Loeb, "Mike Nichols was 'round here to look at my painting from The Graduate. He said the hardest thing [in shooting the original scene] had been getting steam coming off the pool."
Mike Ovitz has also expressed admiration, for a painting based on a scene from Rain Man. Other celebrity fans include Natalie Portman, David Bowie, Elton John, Dennis Hopper, Alexander McQueen, Loeb's girlfriend Vogue writer Plum Sykes, and his longtime best friend, the musician Moby.
Their approbation comes as small relief at a time when Loeb says he is facing both an image problem and, more problematically, potential ruin thanks to a lawsuit dealing with another of his appropriations-a case that despite mediation has so far not been settled out of court.
In 1998 Loeb created Sunlight Mildness by using a picture of teenagers in a convertible and juxtaposing it with the horrifying image of an African execution. The teens were from the cover of Lauren Greenfield's book Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. Greenfield took legal action, which she refuses to drop.
Greenfield is not some nutty outsider with a grudge. Indeed, she's Loeb's equivalent in her own field, which is photojournalism. The 34-year-old photographer has covered riots in Los Angeles for Newsweek and Gucci catwalk shows in Shanghai for Time. She has asked the court to order Loeb to halt any reproduction of the painting, notify its owner that it was not lawfully made under copyright law and so cannot be publicly displayed, and-the coup de grace-deliver up the work itself for "impoundment." In response, Loeb's defense argues fair use.
There are also, of course, damages. "I do not make a lot of money. By the time I pay my lawyers it will take all the money I have made on all my shows so far, and I haven't even lost yet," says Loeb, whose large paintings can now sell for around $55,000.
Greenfield's attorney Gloria Phares explains: "This case is not about money. Lauren is especially interested in her photograph being used out of context, without consent."
The case has made Loeb so wary that he will not discuss the source of the image on his easel, a dead sheep on the road, until-or if-he gets clearance from the Hollywood studio that owns the movie it came from.
"There's a good chance I'm going to have a lot of trouble with this show. The Hollywood law machine makes money just by suing," he says. "You do not want to get in a copyright case. Right and wrong are different in the real world than in the art world."
So why does he continue with such a contentious form of painting? "Part of my job description is to take what's around me and change it. I use how this Hollywood imagery spoke to me more than the imagery itself."
He also credits his friend Moby's direct influence. "I wanted to punch him every time he came over and said, 'I wish you could just have the background.' It was a scary challenge to remove the foreground characters and still capture a recalled emotion." In other ways, however, his association with the musician has not been so productive. The duo is currently favorite fodder for New York gossip columns- a distinction Loeb claims not to enjoy.
"I don't like going out. I hate crowds. A lot of artists don't spend a month and a half on a single painting and only go out twice in that time. But in the end, all that seems to count are those couple of parties I happen to attend."
— Adrian Dannatt