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Gabe Langholtz Talks About His Art by Stephen Jared


People refer to earlier times as simpler times. Simple, however, doesn't mean less difficult. Sometimes simple is reflective of something more complicated. For example, I lived in a toolshed for a year. This was shortly after I moved to Los Angeles. I then found an affordable garage but the garage leaked and LA had its worst deluge in years. I'd make a cup of coffee. "Enjoy the coffee," I'd tell myself, "things will get better." I was living in a Chaplin film, focusing on whatever simple affordable thing I had before me.

   After Hours, 12x12, acrylic on canvas

Gabe Langholtz's paintings are simple, yet there's often a wry humor indicating a complicated world off-canvas. Checkered Past is a still life with nothing more than a beer and a bra on a checkered tablecloth. Spring Cleaning shows a shovel-holding woman facing the viewer after having buried something in the yard. The woman has Modigliani eyes, and given that Modigliani's lover threw herself from a fifth-story window, it's tempting to see this woman as someone who just did something to guarantee her fate will not be the same. The suggested narrative aspect of Gabe's work is not always present. Some are abstracts. Some are preoccupied with more painterly things. He's got a picture called Two Pears that pays homage to Matisse without losing any of the individuality that makes Gabe's work so compelling - not an easy task. I keep going back to a recent painting of his, titled Fish, where the water in a fishbowl changes our perception of physical things, and it makes me think about the illusions we all live with. It demands we see things as they really are, while simultaneously showing us nothing that looks like reality. It's a simple image, beautifully done, perhaps suggesting complicated things.

With twenty-five exhibits over the last five years I'm clearly not the only one taken with Gabe's work. He doesn't fit neatly in a box. He's got too much integrity for that. He searches and experiments with every new canvas. Shifting and changing in order to chase down new inspirations seems to be how he maintains enthusiasm for such a creative life. "I've always pushed myself to try new things,"he tells me. "It has to work for me though, that's the key. I'm painting for myself first and foremost."

   Spring Cleaning, 30x30, mixed media on panel

Presumably, something inspired you when you were young toward artistic pursuits. Do you know what it was? Adoration. Where I'm at today is the positive result of an undoubtedly unhealthy psychological response to my childhood. Growing up I had a super-smart brother who won a lot of awards and praise. That wasn't me. I was somewhat unremarkable as a youngster. Anyhow, when I was 15 or 16, I went to see an Echo & the Bunnymen concert in Dallas, at a place called the Bronco Bowl. The place was packed. The fans were screaming at the tops of their lungs, rushing the stage, pulling on the singer's arms and jacket. I'd never seen anything like that before. It was crazy and exciting, and the polar opposite of the life I was living. I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of something like that. Of course at that time, I wasn't thinking about painting. I wanted to be a rock star. I didn't know a thing about visual art.

Was part of the appeal with Echo & the Bunnymen that they hadn't achieved mainstream popularity? Partly perhaps. They weren't overplayed, which was appealing.

You did go into rock music for a good long while. What did you take away from that experience that benefited you once you started painting? Writing music and playing in bands taught me many things. One of the hardest lessons learned was to trust my own vision unapologetically. Art isn't necessarily a democracy. There were so many times I'd bring a song to the band, and by the time they'd worked it up, it would be nothing like what I'd intended or envisioned it to be. It was very painful. I also learned that I prefer creativity over performance. Music for me became far too redundant. If I had it to do again, I'd take the Beatles approach and skip out on the live shows and focus on writing songs and recording albums. These days adoration isn't what fuels me. I suppose I've done some growing up over the past 30 years.

   Fish, 12x12, acrylic and charcoal pencil on canvas

Were you always drawn to visual art? I don't recall being all that interested in visual art. I wasn't very knowledgeable about it, and I was never keen on drawing, so it wasn't something I ever thought about. For me, the big awakening occurred after I'd watched the 1996 Julian Schnabel film, Basquiat. Up to that point, all I'd ever seen were Texas landscape paintings and Picasso prints, and it was all overplayed. Basquiat's work was exciting, and still is. Realizing something like that is out there, and that you're just uninformed about it, is life-changing. After that, I was hooked. Of course I didn't start painting until years later, but I was aware. I had a newfound appreciation, bordering on obsession. I still have it to this day.

What attracted you to the Basquiat film? David Bowie? No. A friend of mine turned me on to it. I suppose in a long and very roundabout way, she is responsible for all of this.

Are there any other movies about painters you like? To be honest, there's still a lot I need to see. I used to watch a lot more movies than I have in recent years. I think Pollock is a well-made film.

How did you go from putting down the guitar to picking up the brush? Were you painting while doing music? Was there a stretch of time where you weren't doing anything creative? Music fell by the wayside after I had kids, coincidentally not consequently. There were a few years where I wasn't really doing anything creative. Eventually I began painting, like any parent might, alongside my daughter, Sadie. She was so much better than me at the time. I poached her imagery quite often. I eventually found my way.

   Blackbird, 12x12, acrylic on canvas

So, you recognize the beauty in your daughter's paintings, and become inspired to do similar things; how did you then come to find out there was such a thing as naive modernism? Was it a shock that there existed a history of self-taught primitive painters? I didn't discover the British Modernist painters until after I'd already somewhat established myself as a painter of nonrepresentational abstracts. I remember I was looking at an art app on my iPad. One of the publications featured the work of the British Modernist painter Mary Fedden. It was such a wonderful discovery for me, another one of those life-changing moments. She's still one of my biggest influences. Whenever I lose my sense of direction, I always look back to Mary's work for inspiration. She'll forever be my lighthouse. It was through her that I came across the work of Gary Bunt by way of his painting, The 3 Marys. Gary introduced me to many wonderful British painters, including the other two Marys (Newcomb & Potter).

You're rooted in the modernists from the turn of the last century. I think back then there was a reaction against the Industrial Age. Do you think artists like yourself and Gary Bunt are, to some degree, a reaction against the Technological Age? Perhaps indirectly. But not in a political sense. I'm consciously aware that my personal taste gravitates toward things that are patently handmade. I suspect because it's relatable to me. My generation wasn't born into the Technological age. It will be curious to see what is relatable to future generations.

   Tapes, 12x12, acrylic and charcoal pencil on canvas

Can you tell me a little about how you arrive at your colors? I've always been told I have an eye for color. I'm not so sure about that. Some of what is now my process began as happenstance fashioned out of laziness and/or time constraints. I didn't always have time, or take the time, to clean my brushes properly, which inadvertently introduced me to value - a happy accident which I've since employed as part of my process. I arrived at another happy accident through my proclivity to not waste paint. Acrylics dry fast, so whenever I've got leftover colors, I blend them on a new canvas as sort of an underpainting. I discover a lot of new and exciting colors this way, and I try to remember the formulas that work best. I also reference a lot of color from other artists; Fedden, Matisse, Rothko. I think a lot about Rothko's tonal shifting when I'm working on color planes. It's fairly noticeable in my paintings Paper Sack and Fix All and I suppose it's there in The Whiskey Jug as well. The good thing about working with acrylics is if I lay down a color that isn't working, it'll be dry after a couple minutes and I can paint over it. I'm unapologetic about the amount of layering I do. I prefer to take my risks right there on the canvas. I don't have the patience for planning.

There's a vulnerability in your work that I think is enhanced by the canvas sizes. That said, a lot contemporary artists work on giant canvases. Can you see yourself working enormous surfaces? Perhaps. I like the idea of it. I got away from working large out of practicality. I was quickly running out of space, and the shipping costs were impossible. I don't think it would be too terribly difficult to return to painting largescale paintings, if practicality becomes irrelevant.

When you're surrounded by a lot of your paintings does it feel you're looking at an accurate representation, internally speaking, of you and your life? In other words, do you look at a picture and think 'That's a great painting,' or do you look and say 'That looks like what I feel like?' My intent with each painting is to paint a great painting, or rather a painting that is appealing to me aesthetically. That doesn't always require complex subject matter, or narrative. Collectively, however, I think my body of work does capture the essence of my personality. I can see it, but then again I know what to look for.

   Dinghy Abstracted, 36x36, acrylic & grease pencil on canvas

There are recurring images and colors in your work. Is that because those are what are readily available around you or are they re-used because you already know how to make them work? Repetition is natural. We are surrounded by it in our daily lives. So, on some levels it just feels right. Technically speaking, revisiting a subject or theme can be challenging, in doing so you're attempting to recapture the magic of a successful work, while at the same time trying to improve upon it. It's a wonderful way to grow as an artist. I'm not as disciplined about it as perhaps Morandi, but I do like to rehash every now and again.

In your representational work, you put emphasis on a two-dimensional surface but in many of your paintings there is a hint of depth. Is that to create an illusion or is it more about finding a pictorial balance? I'm always looking for balance. That's all I know. I don't necessarily understand why things work. I just know when something feels right. It's instinctual.

Do designs ever come to you prior to subject matter? Occasionally. I write down a lot of ideas, but I don't always follow through with them. I've got a list of unrealized ideas in the notes app on my phone.

   Two Pears, 36x36, acrylic and grease pencil on canvas

Is it a great time to be an artist? With people on computers so much, keeping photos on phones, on Facebook pages, I can imagine handcrafted works becoming more popular as something people want to put on their walls. I'm not so sure. I think it's a great time to be a collector. The downside, as I see it, is that there seems to be an ever-increasing deficiency in art education, especially in the US. There's just not a lot of value put on the visual arts these days, which can be frustrating if you're an artist. The upside, however, is that the internet has made art extremely accessible. So from a collector's vantage, it's really quite energizing. It's an exciting time to be a collector.

What would you answer if one of your kids asked, 'Dad, I want to be a painter; should I go to art school?' I'd absolutely encourage it. Creativity breeds intellect. So any opportunity they have to expand on that is worth the endeavor.

How much of working is exorcizing demons or righting the wrongs of our lives? For me, I think it's more about tuning them out. They're all still there, I just get to step away from them momentarily and lose myself in the process of art making.

You mentioned you haven't seen many movies about painters. There was a French film on Renoir that I think did a good job. A guy named Gilles Bourdos directed. It was a little slow but it covered Renoir as an old man so it would've been weird if someone like JJ Abrams did it. It was immersive, I thought. Very credible. Most Hollywood movies about painters portray them as tormented souls who agonize over their canvases. But painting is a fairly joyful thing, isn't it? You would think. In fact most people are of the assumption that painting is a joyful and relaxing experience. But I think, more often than not, it's arduous. At least it is if you're serious about it. Painters will always struggle over the most seemingly inconsequential things. It's deep-rooted in our psyches. We can't help ourselves. Our torment is self-inflicted. Of course there are those moments when everything is going right, and it is absolutely joyful. Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile, and leave us wanting more.

   Red Mug, 12x12, mixed media on canvas


To learn more about Gabe, visit his web site at www.gabelangholtz.com

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"Jared gets downright inspiring."