• Joseph Kolb

The Emotional Force of Likeness

What creates a moment, and how does a moment shape into a memory? It’s not simply about recounting the transpired events – the people, the room, the atmosphere, the light – in perfect detail (though this may and maybe should happen nevertheless.) If it was simply about this, photography would be a near-complete substitute for the mind. We would have little need to remember, but could instead keep our photo albums and allow any number of images to suffice in retaining our lives. But, generally, when we look at photographs of our pasts, these images ignite our memories, the feelings of then and there. There’s an emotional resonance – be it small, like a stone in a pond, or grand like a wave. Maybe, what makes a moment stick is the energy fostered. And so often that sticky energy is created or, at the very least, amplified, when shared with another, with others. We live in a time when we depend on plenty of ways to continue communication with each other: Zoom, Instagram, Facebook, iMessage, newsletters. The list goes on. But what we miss – what we value, what we remember – is not always communication. It’s the ability to share space, to create a moment together. In this way, Doron Langberg's Likeness resonates with me, as a lens for our visceral emotional world.

This might be unsurprising, as Langberg fondly paints friends, family, and lovers. Think of a special moment from your life, some bright instant that you’ve held onto. Who are you seeing and what does it look like? For Langberg melting walls and textural surfaces – colors that suggest they might have been rendered on a computer instead of with oil paint – situate his figures. These spaces unground us, taking us else: that transcendent, resplendent place of the present past, the moment that we don’t dare let go of. Intense emotion can activate a space, and thus the memory of that space. Langberg shows us what that can look like.

Despite the fluid, vivid layers, his faces always come through with clarity. The greatest attention is placed on his figures. They resonate.

How loud is a memory? These paintings sing, belt it. The landscape rebounds from the figures, who are the source, the focal points, the melody. In Lovers, the vibrant cyan of the mattress and its bedding frame two men. The first figure lays outstretched with one arm behind his head, armpit revealed, with an expression which is not quite neutral, not quite remorseful. They are looking at each other. Meanwhile, the second figure sits with his knees tucked beneath him, making himself small. The first lover seems to be naked, suggesting the aftermath of post-lovemaking, cigarette-smoking contemplation. They are almost transparent, as is the rest of the room, making them, like the space they share and have created, almost fleeting. Whether or not they are talking is unclear – but the cerulean wash suggests contemplation, thinking before speaking.

Langberg seems to relish in transience: the beat between words, the minutes passing before we all get up and go on to the next thing. These can be powerful instances, that in-between state, left to our thoughts and feelings, wordlessly, oh so wordlessly. Sometimes the moments that stick are those that, under different conditions, we might just as easily lose. What Langberg suggests then is that what matters is not capturing the space as it was, but as it felt.

Feeling is not seeing. How do we capture soul? The spirit of something? The likeness of our spirit? That’s what Langberg is after. He told Hyperallergic last year that “when I’m painting a friend, and it ‘looks’ like them, it really means that it feels like them, or that it has their presence — which is what I’m after. That’s why I can only paint people I’m close to, because otherwise I won’t have that accesses to who they are.


Kyle, Robert, and James (2019)

We can see this in Kyle, Robert, and James. Three men lounge languidly in a field – presumably a field. What a scene: the horizon is electric sherbet; the grass is a rough smatter of RGB. Though visually the portrait is out of our world, it’s a place we can easily find ourselves in: letting an afternoon unfurl as we lay about with loved ones, watching the clouds, feeling the breeze. Sometimes these paintings feel as if Langberg has created fictions in a manner of powerfully effortless brushstrokes, the details signifying themselves in simple harmony. But his work is littered with otherwise banal items – a knapsack; a red-striped tube sock – whose eventual notice may gently ground us back to some reality (our reality!) and make us consider these figures in our world and how that world has been cast anew.

Although Landberg doesn’t want you to consider the moment. He wants you to feel the moment – the texture, the touch, the sensibility of it all. Langberg also said in the past that through their visual impact, I want my paintings to bridge this gap between how I see myself and how others see me. By foregrounding color, gesture, and the tactility of paint I try to create a connection with a viewer that speaks to the shared sensations of the bodies we inhabit rather than the social categories that constrict us.Sometimes, being able to lay your head on another’s leg can ignite a moment, set the world (and each other) on fire. Transform it into a cacophony – a symphony! -- of feeling and color and light. At least, that’s how it feels inside. To tap into this power, pry at the cracks in the membrane between our emotional world and the physical, to peek inside and record what you find in there – well, then you’d be joining the likes of Langberg, capturing the ephemeral in its truer nature.

©2020 by Joseph R. Kolb