Viewing Damian Loeb’s landscape paintings can be like looking at another world.
And while in some cases you might actually be looking at another world, other times the experience is much closer to home — or a combination of the two experiences.
A retrospective of Loeb’s landscapes is on exhibition through Dec. 5 in Palm Beach at Acquavella Galleries, 340 Royal Poinciana Way. The installment features 19 of Loeb’s paintings from across 15 years of work.
“It’s kind of a way to see the similarity between the landscape work I’ve always been working on in most of my shows, and my obsession with landscapes,” Loeb said. “And it’s a good way to start introducing these extraterrestrial images as landscapes, which is what I wanted them to be seen as, versus you recognize the images but they’re very abstract.”
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The extraterrestrial images to which Loeb referred are the deep-space photographs that inspired his “Wishful Thinking” series. Loeb incorporates actual snapshots of other planets captured by government space agencies and published in the public domain, building upon them with each brushstroke to create pieces that are influenced by the work of Baroque artists including Peter Paul Rubens.
“I don’t know if I’m more of a space nerd or an image nerd, but this was one of those areas where it clearly came together. I collect images all the time,” said Loeb, whose current show with Acquavella is his first solo exhibition in Palm Beach.
“Wishful Thinking” was born during the COVID-19 pandemic, during a time when the world spoke what Loeb called a “nonverbal language of isolation, and a desire to be somewhere else,” prompting him to visually explore the solar system as a form of escape.
As Loeb scanned the deep catalogs of images curated by agencies like NASA, he looked for standouts that made him feel “happy and comfortable,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for anything strange or far out, or unique images,” he added. “I was looking for the ones that I connected with, that spoke in human terms. Even if they were aliens. And I collected a lot of them.”
The images Loeb ultimately chose for his paintings were those that caught and held his eye.
“The pandemic and my own health issues kind of helped me see some of the visual comfort of it,” he said.
Loeb spends much of his time in his basement studio in New York City, a place he said he has to be reminded to leave. During the pandemic, the tendency toward isolation in that comfortable area was even greater, he said. The pandemic was all-encompassing, a rare world event that everyone experienced simultaneously, Loeb said.
“Some of it was just that simple,” he said. “I’d rather be in another body. I’d rather be a different person. I’d rather be on another planet. It dealt with the isolation and where to go or how to think about something.”
As he explored the outer planets, he found some intriguing facts about NASA’s images — in particular, that they return to Earth in black-and-white, and color is then added by NASA staff. “The coloring goes in after the fact, by people who wish they were nice places and friendly and hospitable,” Loeb said.
The paintings in the “Wishful Thinking” series are some of the most difficult Loeb has done, he said. Where he feels a familiarity with Earth-bound landscapes that allows him to experiment with more abstract interpretations, Loeb said he felt a need to “be respectful and accurate” with the landscapes from space.
“I felt like, if I went abstract, that I wouldn’t be doing justice to what I was feeling,” he said.
The name of the series, “Wishful Thinking,” had twofold inspiration: “I wished I could finish the show because the paintings were so difficult,” Loeb quipped. “And the other was wishing that I could be at these places, but knew I couldn’t.”
In capturing a landscape, Loeb said he looks at scale. His landscapes also tend to exclude humans, because their presence creates a specific perspective, he said.
“In a landscape, it isn’t narrowed down like that,” he said. “It isn’t narrowed down to the human interpretation. It’s offered as an open — when I say ‘story,’ it sounds like it’s a narrative and then it sounds like an illustration, which isn’t what I want. It’s a presentation of a fact.”
Loeb said he has always loved landscapes because there is something in them that isn’t expressed elsewhere. Other subjects might be powerful, but they don’t carry the same power to affect emotions, he said.
His Earthly landscapes are painted based on his photography, and so are very rooted in places he’s experienced himself. “So the ‘Wishful Thinking’ series is trying to take that and impose it on unfamiliar spaces, see if I can make my landscapes using practically abstract images from places I know really do exist,” Loeb said.
As a self-taught artist, Loeb, 53, relies heavily on a constant stream of learning. He grew up in Connecticut and would travel to galleries and museum in New York, where he could see the art by artists he loved and then buy art books.
He still reads book upon book about artists across genres. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Loeb said he had a feeling things would close, so he pulled his children out of school and took his family to the Strand bookstore, where he stocked up on art books, knowing he faced lots of time in the house with the opportunity to read and learn.
“I think I spent a lot of the money on Rubens for some reason on that trip,” he said. “I just kind of went a little nuts. And that has something to do with the kind of guidance that I was led on for this body of work as well,” Loeb added, referring to “Wishful Thinking.”
There was something about Rubens that spoke to him, he said, not that it was any painting of the artist’s in particular. Rubens’ work has a timelessness that makes it feel like there is a dialogue, something that spoke to Loeb.
“That’s one of the things about being self-taught, is that you fall in love with things without getting the background, because there was nowhere, no one insisting that you studied or understood where it came from,” Loeb said. “So I tend to like popular art because there are a lot of books on it and they’re well done.”
One of Loeb’s current fascinations is with the artist Alphonse Mucha, and his portrayal of nudes. “That is not timeless,” Loeb said, making the connection to his fascination with Rubens. “It’s of its time.”
Loeb also has taught and been an artist-in-residence over the years, noting that he was very fortunate to drop out, self-educate and find success as an artist and feels a karmic obligation to others as a result.
“I was lucky enough to be asked to work with Yale (University), and I was just overwhelmed and happy,” he said. Loeb’s father went to Yale, making that offer an especially satisfying one for the artist.
“All of them had to do with sharing my point of view both structurally as well as the images,” Loeb said of his teaching gigs. At the New York Academy of Art, he served as a visiting artist. That institution is a block away from Loeb’s house, and he knows many people there, he said.
But some of his work with young artists is “making up for some of my lack of education,” he said. “I love talking to these people and giving critiques, because there’s feedback from them on why they did what they did. I think I’m even learning a little of studio techniques by giving critiques to studio artists.”
Loeb noted that he sometimes feels that he should be lecturing there at some times, and attending classes as a student at others. “I’m still making up how I paint, just reading restoration catalogs, (watching) YouTube videos about how they restore paintings,” he said. “I consider every painting I do a completely new process.”
Loeb lives in New York City with his wife, Zoya, and two children, who both love art, though Loeb said he is realistic about telling them that art is a difficult career to pursue.
“It’s hard to tell them that, when at the same time, I’m obsessed with the Met and museums and books,” Loeb said. “The whole library in our house is art books. So I don’t get anywhere telling them to ignore art. I’m not exactly genuine. They know I’m not telling the truth. I just have a responsibility as a parent to guide them.”
Loeb said his own reading list came from his own influences, “practically being blindfolded and walking around and grabbing what I had just an inkling for desire for.”
Preparing for an exhibition in Palm Beach has been a much different experience that preparing for one in his home city, Loeb said. While he can drop off the final painting for an exhibition in New York City on the day before the show, each piece had to be shipped to Florida for Acquavella’s opening.
Loeb also said that while his New York City shows elicit reactions and feedback about his work, he’s not sure what to expect from Palm Beach. “I live off of that good criticism, not positive, but good criticism is essential,” he said, adding that he’s been terrified to see the loss of publications like the Village Voice in New York City, which provided insightful criticism of arts and culture.
“The power that our critics had is disappearing, to tell us what to see, and why it was good or bad, whether we agree or disagree, criticism in general,” he said. “I don’t get a lot of feedback anymore. And I don’t like that.”
Loeb tends to stay away from social media, saying that while he know he could get feedback there, it doesn’t feel as well-thought out. “That’s not the kind of feedback I want,” Loeb said. “A thumb up or thumb down tells you nothing at all. It takes no commitment, no responsibility, no effort and tells nothing. It’s just mobspeak.”
He said he hopes to get feedback while in Florida, on the years of work he has put in the collection.
“I would love to think I was making art just for me, but that’s not the truth,” Loeb said. “I make artwork so I can talk to other people and not yell into an echo chamber.”
If you go
What: “Damian Loeb: A Landscape Retrospective”
Where: Acquavella Galleries, 340 Royal Poinciana Way, Palm Beach
When: Through Dec. 5, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Information: 561-283-3415, www.acquavellagalleries.com