Just before this show was to open, Toronto shut down. We suddenly became familiar with living in a mode of social distancing. So now Eli Langer’s carefully arranged work sits in an empty, locked space. We have only photos, which we look at as through windows, back into the happy, noontime light of those free-mobility days… Did you ever expect to feel nostalgia for February?
We’re missing a lot by not seeing this show in person because the work involves the material, and craft of painting. It’s the kind of work you want to get up close to. How thick is the paint; how was it applied? Which colours are underneath and which on top? Is it shiny or flat? What do the edges look like?
We’ll have to wait to find out.
The installation views give a consistent, integrated impression but on closer inspection the work is far from homogeneous. It spans several years, from 2004 to 2008. Langer describes it as a micro-survey show.
The earliest painting on display is RSVP which depicts a face looking through thick leaves. She’s not looking directly at us. Our eyes don’t meet. The darkness of the leaves suggest that we may be hidden in shadow and not visible to her. Langer writes: “Although she has stepped up to look through the window, she is not ready to step out … nor to fully confront whatever she sees beyond the foliage.”
The image is rendered in simple, unambiguous brushwork. The face is painted in light, thin paint whereas the closest leaves are defined in heavy sinewy strokes. The paint handling conveys the narrative of its creation. You can play it back in your mind: the motion of arm, wrist and brush.
Langer painted RSVP when he had just moved to California. He feels that it reflects the shyness and apprehension of the newly arrived outsider. But don’t you recognize that expression now? It’s the look of the persistent, low-grade fear we direct at our neighbours now. Keep your distance.
RSVP, oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches
With organic shapes in languorous greens and blues, Untitled (figure and foliage) looks at first to be a nonrepresentational painting. Until you discover the figure standing at the centre of the image. It gave me a little jolt. Suddenly the centre of the painting has perspective and depth. The figure generates an odd tension. My eye keeps moving; switching between seeing illusional space behind, and the flat shapes on the surface.
Langer starts his paintings ‘fresh’ by which he means without a precise plan. The paintings develop as he works on them. Langer says “…there is always a relationship between my drawings and paintings, but I never draw out or plan paintings from drawings because it won’t work. Painting breaks away from every intention or preconception this painter might have had going in to it…”
Untitled (figure and foliage), oil on canvas, 50 x 46 inches
Bathyscape is another painting that bridges representational and abstract imagery. The blacks, blues and greys are energized by little details of pink that create metallic coruscation as in an ancient faded daguerreotype. I noticed the figure first; its reflection in a still pool. But everything else is confusion. What is this space? The background and reflections in the liquid’s surface don’t agree. What are these shards and shapes in the foreground? The space breaks apart and again the eye keeps moving; trying to piece it all back together again.
Langer writes: “as the imagery developed over several sessions, I saw what I was painting was a moment of self reflection, in a post catastrophic world…having somehow endured the ordeals.” It’s like a premonition of how we suddenly feel in this time of lock-down: disoriented and confused.
Bathyscape, oil on canvas, 78 x 67.5 inches
Large Configuration is one of the more recent paintings in the show. A diffuse background gradates from zingy pink at the edges to grey blue in the centre. In the foreground are shapes in shades of grey that have a shallow, three-dimensional modeling. They are defined in simple and confident brushwork – there is no fussiness or hesitation in their making. The lines are painted once and that’s that.
Large Configuration, oil on canvas, 62 x 47.5 inches
In these later paintings there are no longer any human figures at all. Langer describes the paintings as being in the first person rather than third person. No longer a depiction of a character inside the picture, but something more direct between the artist and the viewer.
“The first person tense only required my being present for the painting…it was clear that I was marking, imprinting and affecting, effectively.”
These paintings tell you about the process of painting: how shapes and colours relate and how the artist has responded and added each element in a specific sequence. I find these engaging and restful. Just pure painting: music without words!
There’s no objectivity in art. We react emotionally. There’s a pandemic and I’m feeling frazzled; it colours my thinking. As I see them now, the figures in the paintings are isolated, dealing with a world that no longer makes sense. But how much of that is my own projection? Langer’s paintings are open ended and ambiguous and can accommodate many different interpretations. What will my impression be in a happier, more confident world?
I’ll have to wait to find out.
Images are courtesy of Clint Roenisch Gallery
*Exhibition information: March 19 – May 2, 2020, Clint Roenisch Gallery, 190 St. Helens Avenue, Toronto. This is an online exhibition at