The current exhibition at Pace Gallery, "Damian Loeb: Wishful Thinking," is an elegant, austere installation of just eight paintings. As with previous shows, the art is presented without labels, artist statements or curator essays (checklists are available upon request and helpful staff are always on hand). This allows the viewer to really focus on the art, without worrying about the artist's biography or backstory. In the case of Loeb's meticulously painted, other-worldly landscapes, however, a bit of background can definitely enhance the experience.
The New York-based Loeb, who just joined the Pace Gallery roster, is a self-taught painter whose work is informed by photography, cinematography and the appropriation of images found in such far-flung places as aerial photographs and the Hubble Space Telescope.
"Pace Palo Alto is thrilled to show Damian's inaugural exhibition with the gallery," Pace President Elizabeth Sullivan said. "The moment I saw his paintings in his studio I knew it would be amazing to show them in our space."
Loeb devoted his pandemic isolation to creating these paintings which, at first glance, are impressively photorealistic depictions of the galaxy, planets and surfaces of the moon. Read the press release for the show, however, and we learn that these works "extend the genre of landscape painting to encompass new realms, translating the 19th-century Romantic ideals of the sublime into contemporary images of the universe."
Said Sullivan, "There is a beautiful rawness in his work that really comes through in this new series."
And so an interesting dichotomy is set up: the spacy, sci-fi-looking paintings (made even more cutting-edge by their completely smooth and glossy surfaces) have reference points to the Baroque age. If it has been a while since your last art-history survey course, Baroque refers to art of the 17th and 18th centuries that is hallmarked by dynamism, elaborate ornamentation and a penchant for the theatrical.
The titles of Loeb's paintings refer to Peter Paul Rubens, Tintoretto and Jean-Léon Gérôme, paying homage to these masters of history and landscape painting. But instead of mythological subjects or religious scenes of high drama and intensity, Loeb calls attention to the distant and unknowable. In "Consequences of War (After Rubens)," a planet (perhaps Earth) holds center stage against a black background of infinity but only half of the orb is in light. Has the dark side been obliterated? In "Romulus and Remus (After Rubens)," two planets abut one another so closely we wonder if they peacefully coexist or are on a path of collision and destruction. The dramatic rendition of the martyrdom of St. Paul by Tintoretto is the inspiration for a painting of the same name that consists of a whirling vortex, illuminated on the outer edge but dark and foreboding in the center.
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 orb floats in the universe, dwarfing a smaller planet in the lower right. Both exist in complete and utter blackness. The reference is to the Greek myth (popularized in contemporary drama by "My Fair Lady") that tells the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion, who kisses his statue Galatea, whereupon she is transformed into flesh. This also references back to the "Wishful Thinking" title of the overall exhibition — the "desire of a certain reality rather than what exists," as the press release puts it.
In the rear room of the gallery, visitors will discover a triptych inspired by the 2017 solar eclipse. Loeb went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in order to get a premium view of this much-celebrated celestial event. The three paintings depict various phases of the moon obscuring the light of the sun. Loeb's title for these works, "All Hope is Lost," perhaps refers to an historical perspective of such phenomena, when uninformed earthlings were convinced that the world was coming to an end.
Perhaps many artists are emerging from the pandemic year with new work that reflects a deeper introspection around what is truly important and of value. The opportunity to ponder one's place in the infinite — as well as see Loeb's deft handling of the medium of painting (not unlike the old masters he references) — is worth the visit to Pace. It's a chance to see museum-quality, cutting-edge art by a notable artist without leaving our own small universe.
"Damian Loeb: Wishful Thinking" is on view until July 2. Pace Gallery is located at 229 Hamilton Ave. in Palo Alto. Advance appointments are required and can be reserved online (for up to two people per visit). More information is available at pacegallery.com.