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Damian Loeb, "The Martyrdom of St. Paul (after Tintoretto)"

A new solo show combines modern technology with classical inspiration—and collectors are clamoring.

By Chloe Malle 

Damian Loeb has the lowest level of Vitamin D his doctor has ever seen. The 50-year-old painter, whose exhibition “Wishful Thinking” opens at Pace Gallery’s Palo Alto outpost on May 19, has skin that is pale to the point of translucence due to the 12 hours a day he spends in his subterranean Tribeca studio. To remedy his lack of outdoor exposure Loeb has outfitted his workspace with screens playing the feeds from cameras on his rooftop and throughout the home he shares with his wife Zoya and their two children. 

This doesn’t help his vitamin D level, but it does satisfy his fascination with surveillance, which is also evident in his hyperrealist large scale tableaux, which, for the last decade, have focused on painstakingly detailed, astronomically accurate spacescapes. Using digital manipulations and collages of photographs taken from airplanes and the Hubble telescope, Loeb has brought the sensibilities of 19th-century Romantic landscapes into the 21st century, replacing a J.M.W. Turner seascape with the 2017 solar eclipse and the Aurora Borealis. And just as the ocean represented the unexplored frontier in Turner’s day, Loeb’s glossy cosmos invites viewers to consider the great beyond. “I wanted to make propaganda for places I knew were going to be a tough pill to swallow,” Loeb says via Zoom one winter afternoon. “If we don’t figure out how to put our DNA somewhere else, we die here.”

He’s not alone in this opinion, and with his upcoming show opening in Silicon Valley, Loeb’s spacescapes are primed to pique the interest of those plotting what’s possible for human existence. “One hopes that laying it at the feet of the people that have the influence to affect these things…” Loeb trails off. “I mean, Elon [Musk, a rumored collector of Loeb’s work] has done so many things that we have been told are impossible.”

Once an art world enfant terrible, on the eve of his first solo show, at Mary Boone Gallery in 1999, Loeb was described by the New York Times as “one of the hottest young things to strut his stuff on the season’s runway.” Then, he was arguably better known for his friendship with Moby and his broken engagement with writer Plum Sykes. “I spent a lot of time trying to actualize a fantasy that a Connecticut boy had about the art world in New York, but, as literature and personal experience show, it wasn’t what I thought it was,” says Loeb, who taught himself to paint by visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For the works in this show, almost entirely produced during quarantine, Loeb was inspired by the romantic mythology of Baroque painting. “I wanted to see if I could make these images of places that I knew were very inhospitable and apply that Baroque lusciousness and beauty.” A painting of Mars, titled Roman Charity (after Rubens), is inspired by Rubens’s work of the same name, in which a woman breastfeeds her imprisoned, starving father. The breast in the Rubens finds its parallel in Mars’s Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system. “I wanted to make sure I could paint it so that from a distance it looks like a breast, but when you get close to it, it’s a bit horrifying.”