On talking with Eli Langer

Eli Langer’s solo exhibition, A Practical Approach to Spontaneous Painting and Modeling closed at Night Gallery back in October. I was able to visit this show several times and subsequently to visit Langer in his studio in East Hollywood.

Night Gallery provides an artist opportunities to work within an idiosyncratic space – physically, temporally as well as psychologically, and also a curious set of limitations. Eli Langer, employing a Zen-like stratagem of non-aggression with this challenging circumstance, draped within the structure of the gallery a distillation of his twenty year practice – offering us the essential oils, so to speak, the complex accords and ultimate dry down of painting. The space and his work became a seamless whole like, to stretch my metaphor, a woman and her favored scent.

“You are in great beauty tonight, my dear!,” cries out a smitten gentleman, as he enters his lady’s presence. “Why yes,” his vision of loveliness replies, “it is good that you notice. Come – I shall allow you to accompany me for a spell.”

I have always loved the notion of beauty as a presence one enters, rather than beauty as being a costume or surface that one applies.

Langer has been showing in Los Angeles since 2004 and for a period also organized group exhibitions in his studio home, featuring a heady mix of international artists focusing on Angelenos/Angelenas and Canadians. He comes to painting by way of drawing: Langer makes masterful drawings of figures and objects which are completely representational without relying on photo-realism to feel… real. In fact my understanding is that the figurative scenes the artist draws still, and which twenty years ago transitioned to his early paintings, originate in his imagination rather than in the world that is in place before him.

Painting led him to abstraction, as Eli put it to me during a studio visit, “If one is active, intelligent and honest, painting will lead to abstraction – it must. As one questions one’s means and methods, as well as the conceptual underpinnings of one’s practice, abstraction will present itself as an avenue for investigation. One may then choose representation as a practice, but abstraction will remain at the base of painting.”

Thus it is that the sum of my experience with Langer’s paintings over the years comprises aesthetic pleasure, vexing questions and enigmatic almost recognition. For his 2006 show with Dan Hug, Bad Weather, Langer showed variously grey paintings with bare marks – lines really – of paint, in blacks and one or two blues and paler greys. To say that I ‘got’ these paintings at the time would be overstating myself. I was struck by their spare loveliness – they have life and they have heart, these paintings, but of a sere kind – they stand away just a bit and ask that you consider them before entering into their conversation. I wanted to read a figure into them, or a narrative, but they resisted my efforts.

Langer’s newest project, an installation that includes reflective material, light sculptures, paintings and a photograph at Night Gallery made clear to me what I have appreciated about his work all along – Langer’s awareness of and manipulation of the presence of light is totally unmatched in today’s artmaking. The surfaces that Eli Langer used in this show reflect light back directly to the source, I could only glimpse their magic around my own presence. I kept getting in the way of myself. He placed orange fluorescent tape marks on the floor which suggested positions I might stand and observe, and offered me paths to walk, and almost posed me as a sculpture within Langer’s installation. I, and you, may be the figure I have looked for in Eli Langer’s paintings.

Eli told me, after the opening when he and I were alone in the gallery one night, that he never was allowed to see the space during daylight hours and that he brought along with him for his initial foray into planning some planks of flooring from his studio and that he laid these pieces of floor out before himself as he crawled on his knees, learning the space in darkness. Later he made a pair of cardboard slippers and used these to un-naturalize himself to the space. He left these slippers in the gallery’s small anteroom with its narrow doorway. Entering this room and spying a photograph of a nude figure crouching, a figure with a tiny waist and delicate features, I supposed that I had better locate slippers to wear myself and I feared that I had soiled some delicate surface with my shoes from the street.

But I tell you, I was drawn to this figure, which appeared alluring and alarmingly androgynous in feature and hyper masculine, with testicles dangling and ass crack on offer, and it appeared the only real thing in two rooms of light and yet also it felt like an apparition, um, like a satyr opening its ass on a light and space fantasy. (Excuse me for a moment while I calm down.)

Langer’s paintings, (both paintings are titled Waves and Particles, 2011) one of which is pictured above, want to disappear in this atmosphere of fantasy. They are crafted with a single brushstroke of the lightest oil paint, across, down, around and back up to the top of a canvas. The ridges of oil catch the light and cast it back. The reflection might be off a vinyl record in a dj booth, and it might be moonlight  reflected off water. They do not disappear, rather they hide in plain sight and, as those paintings in 2006, I needed to spend time and become oriented to them before they were revealed.

All photographs by Davida Nemeroff and all are installation views of “Eli Langer: A Practical Approach to Spontaneous Painting and Modeling.

Night Gallery website: http://www.nightgallery.ca/

Eli Langer website: http://elilanger.com/

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