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F 1_3_ Davislanglois_babylon_2008 1_4_ Cleaned 1_5_ How H Water_
'rak'rüm (noun);
the back room of an art gallery
where artists and art lovers hang
Face of God, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Face of God,
2008, oil on canvas
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
The Resurrection, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, The Resurrection,
2009, oil on canvas, 40" x 50"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Babylon, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Babylon,
2008, oil on canvas, 84" x 120"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Into the Void, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Into the Void,
2009, oil on canvas, 94" x 108"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Dads, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Dads,
2008, oil on canvas, 34" x 60"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Iman, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Iman,
2009, oil on canvas, 66" x 72"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
How Can You Buy or Sell The Sky, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, How Can You Buy or Sell The Sky,
2009, water color and gold leaf on wall , dimensions variable, shown at MCA
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
H.R., Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, H.R.,
2009, graphite on paper
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Water, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Water,
2002, oil on canvas, 72" x 72"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
La Petit Morte, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, La Petit Morte,
2009, Bronze, painted floor, dimensions variable, shown installed in Warhol Skull Room, Andy Warhol Museum
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Support/Pot, Davis Langlois, in collaboration with Gaylan GerberDavis Langlois, in collaboration with Gaylan Gerber,
2003, oil on canvas, 35" x 41"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Angel fuck (boy), Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Angel fuck (boy),
2006, oil on canvas, 30" x 36"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
Mars, Davis LangloisDavis Langlois, Mars,
2006, oil on canvas, 96" x 36"
© Robert Davis/Michael Langlois
© Courtesy of DePaul Art Museum
We began working together in 1997 after meeting at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  For us, representational painting always includes a deferred relationship to the painting's event.  In this sense we see our paintings as historical and symmetrical to our own relationship to the past-defined by an ever-renewing dynamic between memory, its representation, and the synchronicity brought...[more]

Interview with Robert Davis & Michael Langlois

Chicago, Oct. 2009 — From Abraham Ritchie, ArtSlant's Chicago City Editor: This has been a good year for artists Michael Langlois and Rob Davis who work together and show together as Robert Davis/Michael Langlois.  They began the year with House of the Rising Sun,” an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.  In September they showed “Into The Void: The Ballad of The Martyr as Told by Ingres for the UBS 12 x 12: New Artists / New Work series of exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA).  Monique Meloche Gallery, who represent the artists in Chicago, choose to lead off this year’s art season with their graphite drawings “In Our Likeness: Portraits of Illumination,” which runs until October 31st.  

Three significant exhibitions presenting three different bodies of work, it seemed to me that realism was back.  Their paintings are accessible individually but always hint at something larger. When grouped together or viewed in terms of the artists’ total output, the paintings gain in complexity and nuance, presenting highly layered implications and commentary.  I headed over to their Chicago studio to try and find out more.

Abraham Ritchie: In past interviews, you’ve described yourselves as ‘studio rats.’ We’re in the studio right now, so how much time do you both spend in here, per week?

Rob Davis: Six nights a week for sure, an average of five to seven hours a night.

Mike Langlois: I still have a day job, so that keeps me out of here a lot, but the job is also pretty flexible, which lets me get in here.  When we’re not spending time with our girlfriends, or doing the job that we make rent with, we’re in the studio.

RD: We’re in here more often than not.

AR: So about thirty hours though, on top of normal work hours?

RD: Depending on the project, we can be working twelve hour days, or thirteen hour days, but again depending on the project.

AR: I have to ask since you present work together, and people are always going to want to know about the collaborative process, how does each of you work out the actual painting together?  Would you finish one canvas each or can you actually pick up where the other left off?

ML: Our process doesn’t really fit any conventional idea of collaboration.

RD: It’s really organic, more often than not there are several paintings in progress at once, and we’ll switch between them.  Not on a whim, since there’s constant dialogue in here: “Ok, where are you at? What are you doing? Where are you going with this?” We ask each other for advice on one piece or another, and we’ll switch up.  Or if there are three canvases, I can move to this one, and Mike can go to the next one.  So, yes, we’ll pick up where the other left off.

ML: It also has to do with what I’m in the mood for, you know what I mean?  I can work on any given piece for a day to three weeks at a time, and some of these pieces are quite large and extensive.
Sometimes it takes Rob and I twelve months to develop paintings from beginning to end, when we really consider it fully finished. I might spend three weeks and then get frustrated or something and move over to something else, to break the ‘painter’s block.’

RD: A lot of times after we switch, he’ll have been working on something and I’ll see it differently and vice-versa.  I’ll start working on that aspect of the painting and he’ll say, “I see you put a light color here, I’m going to put this dark there, to create a really high contrast.”  That’s where dialogue happens quite a bit, as we correct and edit each other.

Robert Davis/Michael Langlois,  Into the Void, 2009, Oil on Canvas, 94" x 108";  Courtesy of the artists.


ML:  That dialogue is one of the most fantastic aspects of the collaboration.  For example, Into the Void, is a giant forest painting [seen above]. Phew! The amount of foliage in that thing. . . and the many levels of developing it from a sketch, to blocked in color, to starting to create depth.  There would be areas where it would become difficult for me to change it after working on it for a few weeks, but Rob can come in with fresh eyes and develop it to the next level of rendering.  So that tag team ability is huge, especially with a large scale painting like that.

AR:  In terms of paintings like Into the Void, I’m wondering how you approach feeling in your paintings.  In a sense some of them are rather ironic images, but at the same time they’re very un-ironic too.  I felt like Into the Void was one of these images that rode that line in between, where it’s an image from the Apple screensaver, a screensaver I have, and when I was looking at it, it looked so familiar. . .

RD: . . . And then in a few days you realized, “I know where that’s from!”

AR: No, then I read the text panel [laughing].   And then I of course recognized it from the screensaver.  But then [at the MCA 12 x 12 show] across from
Into the Void, you were showing Iman [seen below] and that image to me is so totally un-ironic.

ML:  Yes, I think you are bringing up a very important issue here.  Rob and I have been practicing and working together for almost thirteen years, through the height of late 1990s irony.  It was part of the youth vernacular in general, music was ironic, fashion was ironic, everything was ironic.  I don’t think that we ever were fully part of that; I was never that ironic of a person.  We consciously made a decision that we don’t want to make ironic work.  I guess irony will always play a role in a contemporary conversation.  We love to ride that line, between taking something may be perceived as kitsch or ironic but in the politics of our art we’re more interested in a heavier hand of sincerity.

RD: The irony of the screensaver and that image is that as small as it is, and as quick as it flashes across the screen, it is still beautiful.  It stops you in your tracks and you think, “Wow that is gorgeous.” The screensaver image is there for three seconds, but making it into a giant painting freezes it in time, it slows  down beyond belief.  You took that beautiful image, a three second clip on a screensaver, that was as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen and made it into a huge real thing.  A painting.

ML: This goes into the notion about why we pick the images that we pick, since it’s such a disparate image base.  Each image is picked for a specific reason; it’s the referential weight of the image.  No matter how throwaway of a cultural reference it is: screensaver, album cover, bad JPEG off the internet, whatever.  When we pick something, use an image, we use everything that comes with it, its baggage, its specific weight.  We try to re-inject some humanity back into what maybe a cultural piece of trash. We try to revitalize the image both in itself and within its exhibition context among the other pieces that may surround it.

Robert Davis/Michael Langlois, Iman, 2009, Oil on canvas, 66" x 72";  Courtesy of Robert Davis/Michael Langlois.

AR: And of course Into the Void is a landscape, a kind of classic romantic landscape.  You have been pretty open-handed about that too, that you are working within these traditional genres that have a historical weight behind them, landscape and portraiture.  I noticed that Iman has the classical brown background of Rembrandt to it. . .

ML: And that was the color, no wait it was “van Dyck brown.”

RD: Yeah, good eye, good eye.


AR: Just to expand on the 12 x 12 exhibition, there was the portrait of Ingres, that is dead Ingres, hung right outside the entry to the gallery.  That could be the whole ironic thing, people declare that these genres are dead, that painting is dead, how do you reconcile these sorts of feelings that it’s all been done before?  Or why make portraiture?  I think you’re adding something to it, but how do you respond to that?

RD: Well we don’t indulge in an argument about painting's death, in a sense, but we’re aware of it.  When it comes down to it we’re interested in that type of work, we’re craftsmen in that sense.  We want to make even the ugliest image, like in Meth Lab, we want to make it as beautiful as possible.  We’re painters when it comes down to it, we make sculpture as well, but we’re painting nerds, we’re traditional painters.  It’s an indulgence to paint representationally in oil paints, it’s almost sadistic at times, but we love it.  Those are the kind of paintings that we have always been drawn to as artists.

AR: So to you this is another aspect of your “un-irony,” there’s still some that can be communicated through these forms?

ML:  I’ll take it a step further.  I’d say that the handmade, taking the different images that we take and pointing them back into painting and into the traditional genres that we focus on, does inject a new life into painting and into artmaking in general.  Putting the hand back into something and cross-referencing a whole history of handmade items, moves it beyond an ironic conversation.  We’re making a single image, but also making a sentence, if you will, out of all the things we present in a show and that’s something we’ve been working on for a long time.

RD:  And painting is king, it’s king.  No one can dethrone painting!  I mean even Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, the Monsters of Rock, lately, have all gone back to painting because painting is art.  Period.  It is.  When people think of ‘art’ they think of paintings on the wall, that’s almost an ingrained human response at this point.  And we’re interested in that, the tradition, the craftsmanship, we love it.

Robert Davis/Michael Langlois, H.R., 2009, Graphite on paper; Courtesy of the artists and Monique Meloche Gallery.

AR:  Talking about the build up of images and what you pick to paint, leads into your idea of what you call “the metanarrative.” I feel like you haven’t really discussed what that concept is, how these disparate images fit together.  Even seeing the show currently up over at Monique Meloche Gallery it was so interesting to see images of various people: Haile Selassie, Mary Shelley, H.R. . .

ML: . . . Rob’s Grandmother, Levina Jenkins.

AR:  That was the one I didn’t know!

ML:  This goes back to the other conversation, about being able to view an image unironically, to make a genuine gesture.  This is a reason why Rob and I employ personal imagery, at specific times.  We’re not painting a legacy of our lives, or making a family tree portrait, but we’ll use something very personal, like a family member, for a specific reason and it's always  to diffuse that perception of kitsch or irony.

AR: Sure, so how do these images coalesce into the metanarrative?

RD:  What they become is characters in a story.  In “The Ballad of the Martyrs as Told by Ingres,” Ingres is narrating the story of Chief Seattle to Iman who is contemplating a notion of paradise, that’s the working narrative that we used.  But what you see as you peel the onion away is that each painting has a weight within our larger body of work.  Ingres is in this show about martyrdom because Ingres was, in a sense, a martyr to neo-classical painting so he becomes a martyr inside this narrative we’ve built.  Why is Ingres on his deathbed? Painting is dead, but the image of Ingres is based on a photograph.  So you start to go down the rabbit hole, even with each individual piece.  Who is this fifteen-year-old Palestinian woman?  Is she contemplating martyrdom?  Is this a racist gesture? Each piece will take you down a different path as you investigate that piece within the body of work.  Why is Chief Seattle’s speech in Farsi on a traditional green and gold background?

Robert Davis/Michael Langlois, How Can You Buy Or Sell The Sky, 2009, Water color and gold leaf on wall,  Dimensions variable, shown installed at MCA; Courtesy of the artists.

RD: All these things take you down different paths, making the metanarrative as you move through the exhibition and open up the different layers.  This depends a lot on the viewer, how far the viewer wants to investigate or take it.  That’s what we consider with each individual piece as we put it into the larger body of work.  How does this fit in?  What questions is this going to ask in relation to other pieces? With "Into the Void" we asked, Is this going to go back to the question of what does it mean to be honorable?  What is honor?  Which is the bigger human question that we hope all these narratives posed in this specific exhibition.  So it can explode into all these almost surreal narratives that we’ve created.

ML:  There can be a quick, linear, reading of the work, but there’s always the metanarrative, the larger nonlinear connections.  There are bigger political questions posed by these juxtapositions: Farsi, a young Palestinian woman, a French neo-classical painter, a speech given by a Native American, these things are not linear in the way we present them.  But they do have connections and meanings.


ArtSlant would like to thank Michael Langlois and Rob Davis for their assistance in making this interview possible.

--Abraham Ritchie


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