The art of allusion: Interview with Damian Loeb

Damian Loeb’s work relies on the viewer’s recognition of the visual sources that he quotes liberally


Those who play with mass-media also get burnt by it, and Damian Loeb is a case in point, having been much in the news due to a series of law suits brought against him for copyright infringement. As a painter who creates spookily meticulous, lushly brushed images based on pre-existing sources, from widely published photographs to scenes from very famous films, Loeb’s battles with the law exemplify the increasingly restrictive practices regarding the re-use of any visual material. These micro-scandals are hardly the central issue in Loeb’s œuvre—certainly they were never part of his intention—but the larger issues of image-culture are relevant, not least the matter of how a mass-produced image can still affect us emotionally however mechanical its origins or wide its diffusion. The question of how and why we instantly recognise certain images, how we store them in our minds and how advanced technology stores them, are among Loeb’s themes. Luckily Loeb, as a rather modish artist with a well-connected gallery, has actually been selling his paintings to some of the major film directors whose work he has appropriated. For example, Mike Nichols purchased a swimming pool scene derived from “The graduate” from Loeb’s last show. Loeb has now created a series of large paintings, frozen tableaux, derived from several very well known horror and science fiction films, though for reasons of legal reticence he is shy of naming them, even if some, like “2001”, are instantly recognisable. This actually makes the process more intriguing, as the images operate upon one with a genuinely dream-like sense of déjà vu and echo-back from the giant storehouse of media mythology in haunting fragments which can never quite be placed. Some of these paintings are direct transcriptions of freeze-frame scenes, others are computer collages assembled from a range of different shots, for Loeb uses the latest technology as both a practical tool and metaphor for a sort of new world memory system minted from the ever-expanding digital matrix.

The Art Newspaper: Your new show at Mary Boone refers to horror and sci-fi films. Is it important that the viewer recognises what they are based on?

Damian Loeb: All successful art must contain a question and an answer. Both of these elements should be contained within the structure of the individual pieces. Art is weakened by a dependence on external signifiers.

TAN: These images from a very famous sci-fi film are not actually taken from any single scene, rather they are composite collages created by you.

DL: Most of the images for this show are created first as composites culled from digital filmed elements. In the effort to reproduce the emotional response I originally experienced, I found it necessary to use multiple references for each individual work. The resulting collage, if successful, communicates this experience on its own.

TAN: Both genres trigger very emotive responses by fairly banal imagery. Do you want your paintings to have the same, almost-physical reaction?

DL: The use of banality in these two genres is effective in facilitating the “suspension of disbelief”, a necessary and crucial element in the dramatic equation. I have been continually intrigued by the varied and ingenious methods contrived towards this goal in cinema, and was curious to see if and how they would work in a still image.

TAN: Do viewers always want to guess which films they come from?

DL: As with any work that has referential elements, there is a strong desire to identify and recognise those references. This desire is what one hopes will help prolong the attention paid to the work.

TAN: Do you feel films have created a sort of “collective subconscious” for your generation?

DL: More and more it seems that film is our consciousness. One hopes, however, our collective consciousness incorporates other elements as well; most contemporary movies are stultifying. Though there have been a few remarkable exceptions, the lack of any creativity and of character development cannot be a good indicator for the tone of our current culture.

TAN: You have also made commercials and music videos. Why do you not paint images derived from TV footage?

DL: Television has consistently lived up to the title “idiot box”. It is the beginning, middle, and end of any interests it creates. Its guileless desire to satisfy the public’s prurient desires precludes any coherent creative dialogue. I am, of course, excluding PBS from this indictment.

TAN: Your work requires a lot of digital manipulation and you cut and paste pre-existing imagery. You must be unusually aware of composition and its potential effects?

DL: As intoxicating as the possibilities a computer can now offer in image manipulation, the rules of composition are constant. A successful image uses these rules to influence and inform the viewer’s interpretation.

TAN: You have had various problems with copyright over images you have appropriated in your work. Is that an inevitable result of increasingly tough software-entertainment regulation?

DL: As more of the US’s wealth is created through “information technology” and less in manufacturing, the rules have to be adapted. In order to protect these interests, particularly their copyright, the rules of ownership of images and ideas have become absurd. Concerns for fair use and commentary are trounced in the push to squeeze every penny from one’s output and have total control of its interpretation. This ideology leaves little room for creative discourse.

TAN: Why is painting still important to you, rather than the simple reproduction of images by easier means, such as getting assistants to do it for you?

DL: If I could find a way to get the same personal satisfaction from painting without the headaches, and assistants who could translate through their hands what I see in my head, or if I could feel the same way about a finished piece after painting it, inch by inch, detail by detail, I would let them do it and work on more ideas, but I think so much that is learned through the process is irreplaceable.

TAN: Painting is obviously a personal pleasure. Is that pleasure in the act of painting itself?

DL: No; not just painting. Helping others to visualise a hypothesis through creation is fun too. I find though that I can do that best by painting.

TAN: There seems nothing cynical or ironic in your painting. It is, perhaps, closer to that deadpan enjoyment of popular culture Warhol exemplified also?

DL: There is so much art that relies on cynicism and irony; if you “get it”, it is mildly entertaining, but usually in a cowardly kind of way.

TAN: Do you think you are getting better as a painter, technically, and is that a key pleasure in continuing to paint?

DL: It isn’t obvious to me that my work has improved, but that goal certainly keeps me going.

TAN: Are you playing on the difference between the perceived “high” culture of painting and that of Hollywood movies?

DL: As I have said; for most Americans, Hollywood is culture.

TAN: As it is something you have always done before it became fashionable again, how do you feel about the much heralded “return” to figurative painting?

DL: I have always foolishly believed that the world is a meritocracy. Good work will be rewarded by the attention it deserves.

TAN: Drawing is also very much back in vogue, but that seems singularly lacking in your work. Or is it that you are drawing, but doing it by computer?

DL: I draw much in the same way that I paint. I just find that I have more control and that there is more of a lasting impact with paint.

TAN: The role of the sampler in music seems a profound shift in ways of constructing work. Is there an analogy between your use of source material and sampled music, such as the work made by your friend Moby?

DL: Sampling is now matter-of-course. It is how you use the sample that matters. Speech is formed through duplicating sounds from memory with muscle manipulation. Singing is art.

TAN: What variety of technical-digital tools do you use to construct works?

DL: First, a Sony DLP projector. Then, a very fast Macintosh, several illicit software programmes for deciphering digital video code, and Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Then, Old Holland oil paints and Isabey Kolinsky sable and badger brushes on a thick Belgian linen which has been sized with rabbit skin glue and lead primed.

TAN: How do you choose, say, just eight images to make these big paintings when you are surrounded by such a limitless abundance of visual information?

DL: I continually watch movies and make new collages. After living with them for a while, the most compelling ones emerge to me and must be made into paintings. If, after a while, I lose interest in a collage, then it was not meant to be.

TAN: This show is the first element of a three-part exhibition, as suggested by its numeric title “1.1.9b2” which refers to software codes…

DL: In the process of refining the way I obtained images to paint, I found out about the rules for naming software releases and updates. I thought that this could apply to the body of work I was making for New York, London, and Cologne. The New York show is the first release of this work and hopefully the London show next year will improve and elaborate upon these ideas.

TAN: Do you plan to continue painting scenes derived from film or might you shift into more personal imagery?

DL: I have so much to do to get this work to where I want it to be and so many interesting challenges that I am not thinking about other bodies of work or that far into the future.

TAN: What emotion would you hope for from the ordinary viewer, someone who has wandered into your latest exhibition, elation, dread or both?

DL: As long as there is a reaction, I will be pleased.


Born: 1970, New Haven, Connecticut. Lives in New York City. Currently showing: Mary Boone Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York 10151, % +1 212 752 2929. Solo exhibitions include: 2003: Mary Boone Gallery, New York; White Cube, London; Jablonka Galerie, Koln, Germany; 2002: White Cube, London; ;2001: “Public domain”, Mary Boone Gallery, New York; 2000: Mary Boone Gallery, New York; 1999: Mary Boone Gallery, New York; White Cube, London; 1996: “White room, white columns, New York;

Group exhibitions include: 2001: “Hypermental”, Hamburger Kunsthalle; “View five: westworld”, Mary Boone Gallery, New York; 1999: “Facts and fictions”, Part 4: New York; Galleria In Arco, Turin; 1998: “Tension”, Robert Miller Gallery, New York; 2000: “Generator”, Trevi Flash Art Museum, Trevi; “Hypermental”, Kunsthaus Zurich