‘Not many people outside the community have access to these spaces’… Basement, 2023.Photo: Bruce White/Doron Langberg/Victoria Miro
Step inside the rave. On your left there is euphoria: topless dancers lost in the moment. Right in front of you is the chillout zone: your friends are draped over each other, their bodies radiating electric shocks of red, yellow and blue under the lights. But to your left is where the real wildness happens: a blur of bodies in the dark, with dangling penises, parted buttocks and gaping mouths gradually coming into view.
The only thing missing in this room full of hedonism is the music, because this nightclub is not a nightclub at all. Rather, it’s Night, an exhibition of life-size paintings by Israeli-born artist Doron Langberg. They unapologetically chart the joys of different nights out in queer spaces, from dancing and sex to blissful beach comedowns. It was a subject that Langberg was initially unsure about.
“There was something in me that felt, ‘Oh, this can’t be the subject of an exhibition,’” the 39-year-old says as he shows me around the gallery. “It’s too frivolous. There is too much pleasure and desire.” Langberg’s previous works include landscapes, still lifes and portraits of his friends and loved ones – things he believes everyone can relate to. “While these are experiences that not everyone has … not many people outside of this community have access to these spaces.”
Still, many people have formative moments in clubs, and who wouldn’t be at least intrigued by a painting like Dark Room (Underwear Party), which offers a bird’s-eye view (“almost an out-of-body experience”) of naked bodies entangled in one smudged, swirling , orgiastic mass?
“I painted a lot of it with my hands,” says Langberg. He loves to connect with the sensuality of paint: the way it feels to hit or stroke it on the canvas. “I almost wanted to recreate that feeling of going through that swarm of people, where everyone is touching you and you are touching everyone else.”
Langberg grew up in Yokneam Moshava, a small agricultural settlement in Israel, where he made his first oil painting at the age of six – of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. His father was a mathematics professor and his mother a psychology and child development teacher, but they lived surrounded by farming neighbors. “It was very peaceful: we were near the mountains and it was green and beautiful and we went for a walk.”
He served his military service and worked as an aircraft mechanic before studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then at Yale. As a student, Langberg was drawn to painting sexual scenes, although he was unsure why at the time. “People want to know why, as if it has to be justified,” he says. “But I was in my early twenties when I made those works. And I think at that moment strangeness used to be sex.” Since then, he wanted to push the boundaries of what queerness can mean. “I just grew as a person and wanted my work to describe different kinds of experiences.”
Langberg has talked before about adding a strange perspective to paintings, such as a landscape or a photo of his brothers walking. How does he do this? It was a question he once found difficult to answer, until a studiomate remarked, “Why should a landscape be straight? Why should it be my duty, as a queer person, to have to make it queer, assuming it doesn’t?’ He laughs: “So it’s not ‘this piece of paint is gay’. But there may be a set of experiences that structure our way of being in the world. And that allows you to look at different things.”
After graduating, Langberg’s paintings expanded to include tender scenes of lovers, friends and siblings. Such works have led to him being labeled as part of a group called the New Queer Intimists – a collection of young artists, including Louis Fratino and Salman Toor, who build on the ideas of the original intimists Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. With a pandemic still in the recent past and our dependence on digital communication reducing the need for personal contact, the time feels right for paintings that can make us feel a human connection. “When I graduated, it was all about process-based abstraction,” says Langberg. “If you were talking about intimacy or anything remotely emotional, it would be so uncool. Now there is more willingness to see these connections as valuable for making art.”
We go upstairs for the afterparty: paintings depicting the night melting away after the club. Perhaps most notable is The Walk Back (Underwear Party), which depicts two figures wandering home from a party on New York’s Fire Island. Should it be joyful? Because with its murky greens, browns and blacks, it looks to me more like something Paul Nash could have imagined: two figures walking through abandoned trenches.
Langberg is intrigued by my reaction. He then tells me that the painting took him four months to complete because he had difficulty depicting “in the middle of nature at night, without artificial light… I had to paint it again and again before I was happy with it.” And this all took place during the war [in Gaza] was going on. My brothers saw what I was doing and noticed how the outside world crept into my work.” According to him, the conflict is ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘unbearable to watch’.
The next painting, of a friend recovering on a bench as the sun rises, comes almost as a relief – a burst of light and color, more akin to Langberg’s earlier works. “When people are staring into space or taking a nap… that’s when they’re most themselves,” says Langberg. “Then I can get the most out of my subject.”
And then, unfortunately, the party is over: those great moments of transcendence are now just a memory. Or are they? “I think paintings themselves can be transcendent experiences,” Langberg notes before I leave. “That we can look at something from a different time, a different context and experience very vividly what the painter is depicting. It’s interesting that those two things meet.”
• Doron Langberg: The evening takes place at Victoria Miro, London, until March 28