Robert Davis and Michael Langlois are unusual not only because they collaborate but because their paintings, based on photographs, have a steamy, soft-edged sensuality opposed to the cool distance of most works painted from photos. A portrait of emperor Haile Selassie seems to vibrate with an almost out-of-control lushness and depth despite its apparently sedate dark greens and browns; captivated by its radiance, one almost forgets the significance of the subject.
Davis and Langlois met while they were students at the School of the Art Institute; they began collaborating on paintings about two years later, in 1998. After discussing the subject matter and concept, they both paint the same canvas, sometimes but not often at the same time; their goal, Davis says, is to make the work “as beautiful and juicy as possible.” Other painters can be an influence–Haile Selassie is based on a photo that reminded them of Ingres’s seated portrait of Napoleon. But their work’s inspiration, Langlois says, comes more from the “sensuality” of the heavy metal and punk bands they both love. Among their favorites are High on Fire, the Melvins, and Black Sabbath, and it was the Bad Brains’ praise of Haile Selassie, whom Rastafarians consider a god, that helped spark their interest in Ethiopia’s former emperor. (They say in their statement that they’re not Rastafarians but do “partake in their sacrament.”)
Though the theme of these works is spirituality, they’re not calm or meditative; every picture here is almost aggressively visceral, with a voluptuous surface. Aware that Selassie has been described as both a terrible ruler and a good one, they painted him at a skewed angle, contrasting their portrait with Ingres’s “perfect,” dead-on image of Napoleon. Davis and Langlois are open to suggestions from a small circle of close friends, and when photographer Rashid Johnson saw Haile Selassie, he told them the jacket was too dark and they needed “to blast it with light.” Davis thought the painting was complete, but the next day Langlois repainted it, and Davis agreed it was better. “The longer we work together,” Langlois says, “the more our trust in each other grows.”
Davis and Langlois use a variety of photos as their sources, sometimes relying on those they take themselves or on a combination of appropriated images. For Space, a wide painting of a starry sky as seen through a telescope, the first image that interested them led to others that helped “make it a more dynamic composition.” Their stars come in different sizes and bright colors–they look a bit like gum balls, though the black space around them both dematerializes them and makes their glowing light more luscious. Nirvana was based on on a snapshot Langlois took of his toddler nephew, who “did a backwards fall into the grass and looked so happy, so blissed.” But it was Davis who found the photo and said, “Holy shit, this is the next painting.”
The artists add color in thin, translucent layers, often of slightly different hues, using a centuries-old oil painting technique. The grass in Nirvana, which surrounds the child like a sea, began as a field of green umber, which they then partially removed to define each blade. Then they applied three or more layers of paint to each blade to enhance its luminosity. The grass has an ecstatic feel that, combined with the child’s expression, strongly conveys his pleasure.
The strangest and most disturbing painting, On the Edge of Oblivion, is also the most abstract; it’s based on a photograph of a gift that a friend, artist Vincent Dermody, brought them from Thailand: a whiskey bottle that contains one preserved snake devouring another. “I think this is a healing image in Asian culture,” Langlois says. But their interpretation of it “through the lens of heavy metal music” is demonic: they “tweaked and distorted” their picture in Photoshop to make it “a surreal image of evil.” The devouring snake’s white eyes shine out with a terrible intensity, and without the context of a landscape or the whiskey bottle, the painting’s swirl of yellowish brown, almost flamelike streaks gives the scene a hellish isolation.
Robert Davis and Michael Langlois
118 N. Peoria
through October 23
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.