The current exhibition at Pace Gallery, “Damian Loeb: Wishful Thinking”, is an elegant, austere installation of just eight paintings. As with previous exhibitions, the art is presented without labels, artist statements or curatorial essays (checklists are available on request and helpful staff is always available). This allows the viewer to really focus on the art without worrying about the artist’s biography or backstory. With Loeb’s meticulously painted otherworldly landscapes, however, a little background can certainly enrich the experience.
New York-based Loeb, who was just added to the Pace Gallery’s list, is a self-taught painter whose work has been shaped by photography, cinematography, and the appropriation of images in places as distant as aerial photography and the Hubble Space Telescope.
“Pace Palo Alto is excited to show Damian’s inaugural exhibition with the gallery,” said Pace President Elizabeth Sullivan. “The moment I saw his pictures in his studio, I knew it would be great to show them in our room.”
Loeb dedicated his pandemic isolation to these paintings, which at first glance are impressive photo-realistic depictions of galaxies, planets and lunar surfaces. However, read the exhibition press release and learn that these works “add new areas to the genre of landscape painting and translate the romantic ideals of the sublime of the 19th century into contemporary images of the universe”.
Sullivan said, “There’s a beautiful rawness in his work that really shows up in this new series.”
And so an interesting dichotomy emerges: the spacey, sci-fi-looking paintings (which are even more topical due to their completely smooth and shiny surfaces) have references to the baroque. If your last art-historical overview course was a while ago, baroque refers to the art of the 17th and 18th centuries, which is characterized by dynamism, elaborate ornamentation and a tendency towards the theatrical.
The titles of Loeb’s paintings refer to Peter Paul Rubens, Tintoretto and Jean-Léon Gérôme and pay homage to these masters of history and landscape painting. But instead of mythological subjects or religious scenes of high drama and intensity, Loeb draws attention to the distant and unrecognizable. In “Consequences of War (According to Rubens)” a planet (perhaps the earth) stands in the center against a black background of infinity, but only half of the sphere is in the light. Has the dark side been erased? In “Romulus and Remus (After Rubens)” two planets collide so closely that we wonder whether they coexist peacefully or whether they are on a path of collision and destruction. The dramatic depiction of the martyrdom of St. Paulus von Tintoretto is the inspiration for a painting of the same name, which consists of a swirling vortex that illuminates on the outer edge, but is dark and ominous in the middle.
In a way, both Loeb and the Baroque painters have a similar mission; to inspire humanity to a higher spiritual vision. In “Pygmalion and Galatea (After Jean-Léon Gérôme)” a large sphere floats in the universe, which dwarfs a smaller planet in the lower right corner. Both exist in utter and utter blackness. The allusion refers to the Greek myth (popular in the contemporary drama of “My Fair Lady”), which tells the story of the sculptor Pygmalion, who kisses his statue Galatea, whereupon it is turned into flesh. This also refers to the title “wishful thinking” of the entire exhibition – the “desire for a certain reality instead of the existing”, as the press release says.
In the back room of the gallery, visitors discover a triptych inspired by the 2017 solar eclipse. Loeb went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a prime look at this much-acclaimed heavenly event. The three paintings show different phases of the moon that obscure the light of the sun. Loeb’s title for these works, “All Hope is Lost”, perhaps refers to a historical perspective of such phenomena when uninformed people on earth were convinced that the world was going to end.
Perhaps many artists are emerging from the pandemic year with new work that reflects a deeper introspection of what is really important and valuable. The opportunity to ponder his place in infinity – as well as to see Loeb’s skillful use of the medium of painting (similar to the old masters he refers to) – is well worth a visit to Pace. It’s an opportunity to see top, museum-quality art from a remarkable artist without leaving our own little universe.
“Damian Loeb: Wishful Thinking” runs until July 2nd. The Pace Gallery is located on Hamilton Ave. 229 in Palo Alto. Appointments in advance are required and can be reserved online (for up to two people per visit). More information is available at www.pacegallery.com.
The contributing author Sheryl Nonnenberg can be reached at [email protected]