Queer Eye on Canvas
office caught up with Langberg to discuss James Baldwin, imagination vs. reality, and NSFW.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never read Baldwin’s magnificent essay about America and building identity from which you derive your show’s title — how did that inform your work? Were any pieces made in direct response to this essay?
You should! It’s so good and pretty short. I read Baldwin for the first time in my first year of graduate school and he’s been a huge inspiration ever since. Although none of the paintings in the show reference the text directly, the essay’s overall strategy of communicating politics through personal narrative is how I want my work to be read. In Nothing Personal he talks about how love is the ultimate tool to overcome any obstacle-from space and time to indifference and bigotry. The tenderness and empathy in his writing has all I want from my own work. For me, Baldwin represents the idea that depicting someone with enough care can reveal the interiority of both subject and artist, and create bonds that transcend differences.
All the people I paint are close friends, lovers, and family members, and whenever possible I paint them from observation — so it’s a pretty intimate process. I think a lot about the work of other queer artists like Wolfgang Tillmans or David Hockney, where queerness is not just a subject, but a lens with which to view the world. I want to depict queer sexuality or relationships as part of a broader context of everyday life — which is how I experience it.
What was it like growing up queer in Israel? How does that come into play in your art?
Where I grew up in Israel is pretty liberal so I never encountered any backlash from my friends, and my family is very accepting and supportive. I also went to art middle school and high school so basically everyone around me was gay. The first time I experienced anti-gay sentiments was when I was doing my mandatory military service. I was an airplane mechanic and I think for most of my peers and commanders I was the first gay person they were close with. I remember one of the officers in the unit saying he would rather have a criminal son than a gay son, and so on. But as they got to know me we became friends and I felt like an integral part of the unit.
As far as my work, it has less to do with being Israeli and more to do with being Jewish. My dad was born in Poland a month before the German invasion. To survive, his mom paid a Polish farmer to hide her in his attic and she put my dad in a monastery for the duration of the war. When the war was over she kidnapped him and they immigrated to Israel. While my dad and grandmother were able to escape, almost all of their family were killed. There are a lot of parallels between anti-Semitism and homophobia, and I think my family’s history was what drew me to focus on the human experience as my subject.
A lot of “modern” museum and gallery exhibitions are avoiding paintings like the plague. How do you feel about this, being primarily a painter yourself?
That’s funny; I really don’t see it that way. Especially here in New York there is such a live, diverse, and exciting conversation about painting, and it seems like painting still has a sense of urgency. In the last five years especially there has been so many shows about abstraction, culminating in the Forever Now show at MoMa. And more recently, there seems to be an explosion of figurative painting shows and articles focusing on portraiture and intimacy in particular. So actually I feel that there is a great context to the work I’m making right now. But of course even within New York there are so many different co-existing art worlds, maybe I’m just in my own happy painting bubble.
How’s Queens? Good queer scene? / art scene?
I love Ridgewood. A ton of artists live near by and it feels like the more chill and cheaper version of Bushwick. Before starting at the Sharpe-Walentas Studio program my studio was a few minute walk from my apartment at 17-17 Troutman, which is a huge studio building. So many cool artists are in that building and that whole area feels very vibrant. Because there are so many artists around all the bars feel a little queer, but I do have to admit that if I want to gay it up I usually go to Metropolitan Bar in Williamsburg, which is my absolute fave.
If you were an animal, what species would you be? Why?
A mermaid, obviously. I was obsessed with Ariel growing up, and my first oil painting ever was of her! I think every little gay boy can relate to feeling out of place and of course to collecting George de La Tour paintings in your underwater secrete cave.
Which is more important: imagination or reality?
Ah! That’s a hard one but I would have to go with imagination. When I was in graduate school I took George Chauncey’s class ‘Gay and Lesbian American History.’ One of the main messages of the class was that being able to imagine a different reality is the only way to bring about change. Which is extremely hopeful on one hand, but also makes the point that progress is not a natural process but the product of the hard work of many inspired individuals. For me, the ability to imagine and create a world in my paintings where queerness is valued and normalized is one of the main reasons I make work.
Porn: does it matter? Is it artistic? Is it useful?
Despite my paintings being quite explicit at times, I’ve never used porn as source material. My relationship to my subjects is a huge part of my work so they’re all derived from personal experience. I think that porn, like Google searches, is a reflection of what people want to see and what excites them. So as a cultural product it can be a great tool for artists, just not for me.
What do your subjects think of their appearances in your work?
It varies, some people are really into it and some people are doing it because I asked. But for the most part I’ve been surprised with how willing and excited people are to be painted. My friends are almost all artists so we’re used to being each other’s models, but for others I think it’s a novelty. The only person to be actively discontent with my depiction of them is my mom actually, who was like, ‘yes it’s me,’ which I thought was really funny.