Monday, September 24, 2012

Beer with a Painter: Dov Talpaz

Photo by Naomi Lev

Full disclosure: Dov Talpaz is one of my favorite people on the planet. I have known him for years, through the painters I’ve written about, like Paul Resika and Rosemarie Beck.  But we became close friends more recently, after I wrote a catalog essay for the Painting in New York group, which he is part of. I was going through some transitions myself at that time – personally and professionally – and Dov, Chris, and Tyler were pretty much convinced that having beer with painters (them!) would cure whatever ailed me.  And, yeah, it kinda did.

There are a few rules to having beer with them: 1) They always pay, as in, really, your money is no good here! 2) You are going to be drinking on an empty stomach, so, get used to it! Hunger pains will eventually go away, after enough beer. 3) You are going to be talking about painting for most of the night, as in, who is the opposite of El Greco, quick! 4) Photos will be taken, so make sure you look decent. Looks are important, because life and art are all about beauty, right?*

Once when we were out with some friends, Dov made a drawing of the lovely Julia Rommel.  The painter and writer, Stephen Westfall, who was there, called it “Madonna of the Shtetl.”  We had to laugh – it is such a great catchphrase for his work.  Dov is a romantic storyteller in his painting – even contemporary life (he paints on the street as well as in the studio), becomes timeless, universal meditations on humanity.  The bodies are lyric, lilting forms, equal parts Duccio and Bob Thompson, set in darkly-layered, abstracted landscape grounds.

Dov’s studio is in East Williamsburg, and it’s an environment that feels kind of romantic in its simplicity and, um, lack of daylight.  We met at his neighborhood bar, Harefield Road, a beautiful space with a long beer list, heavy on microbrews and craft ales.  The music was pretty sweet too, ranging from Radiohead to old blues guitar.  We started with shots of tequila and moved on to Shock Top beer with lemon. Thank you, Dov!

JS: I think the thing that touches me the most in your painting, and also in your personality, is your attachment to being real, true, and personal.  You delve deep into human emotions.  Can you talk about that?

DT: I am attracted to the sense of longing.  As a child, I traveled a lot with my father, because he was teaching here. I was born in the States, and I was always in both places. There’s always been a longing, for Israel, for being back home.  But when I was there, I wanted to come back here. I had a lot of time by myself. Being alone is where I started drawing and painting.  It was almost like a friend.  I liked that thing, where you look at something and you draw.  You can push yourself, and connect to something.  It’s a great energy. 

JS: So it’s that connection, which makes the work real?

DT: It is not even about connection to the work.  It’s that, after you finish it, you know you were there, in that moment.  I was that person, walking in that place. I wasn’t lazy.  I was connected to something.  It’s not about the thing.  I don’t think a still life in itself means that much to me.  But, as a kid, the experience of trying to draw or paint it meant a lot. It felt the most real of anything I had done. Connecting with the drawing, to what I was looking at, was the one experience I loved.  Trying to really be there for that. 

Dov Talpaz, Resurrection, 2012, mixed media on paper, 9 x 6 inches
JS: You choose very specific subject matter – biblical stories, literature, allegories and meditations on your friends and people in your life.  What is your attraction to these subjects? 

DT: My dad was here a few days ago and he was staying with my brother.  My brother’s kids were really enjoying having him there.  He read stories to them before they went to sleep.  It’s all invented stories that he tells, and I was like - oh shit, I forgot about that.  That as a kid, he would read to me every night.  We had an illustrated bible with drawings and paintings, and he would read from it every night, but it wasn’t the real story; it was completely invented. He’s a very mathematical person, so you wouldn’t think he would do that.  I loved it, every story he would tell me.    It was this weird, elaborate image, and he made it up.  The retelling of a story is what interests me more than anything.  That’s why I’m affected when I read a book, and I want to paint that book. I didn’t invent that story, but I just want to retell it.
Dov Talpaz, First Fee (from Babel), 2011, oil on canvas, 27 x 25 inches
JS: You have certain enthusiasms in painting and in literature, like Rembrandt, Babel, and Rilke.  Can you talk about the issues or inspiration they provide?

DT: The part of Babel and Rilke and even Rembrandt is that story – I can imagine thembeing.  Whenever I read a Rilke poem, I feel like I can see him, standing in the room.  He’s somewhere in his travels, and there’s a little lamp, and he’s writing.  It’s a romantic view of the poet, standing and writing; he’s all alone, suffering maybe, he’s in Paris, but he’s still at it. Babel too, he’s the guy on the horse, writing, part of the Red Cavalry, all alone. He’s a Jew, but nobody else knows, because he has to hide  it.  They’re both such great writers, and you’re immediately transported.  Both very personal, and travelers.  And Rembrandt is the great humanist painter.  You feel his suffering and his pain, but also his hope. He’s the most optimistic painter I can think of, because he paints humans to the soul - the beauty of the soul.

JS: I know you actually went to Rilke’s house.

DT: It was part of a family trip- I realized his house was very close to where we were staying.  That house was amazing. I incorporated the trees outside his house into a painting. I was seeing something in that moment that you love so much, you want to put it in your painting.  I can’t explain why he’s a great poet.  I barely understand poetry.  But there’s a sense of feeling that you get from it when you read it.
Dov Talpaz, Bike, 2012, oil on wood, 22 x 21 inches
JS: That’s your criteria in looking at art, your standard – the feeling, is it personal, is it real?  That’s a value that is not really part of our contemporary culture.  Most people do not seem to care about that.

DT: Well, you have to be honest to who you are.  Try to understand who you are, in your spot.  It’s also about knowing what you love. As you know, we do this thing – this game, “Who do you like better, Mondrian or Gorky?” We did it for years, and the reason we did, is we were trying to understand what we are and what we are not.  Which I think is very important - to understand what I am not, as well. Maybe it can change and evolve with time. But it’s harder to say, why do I love Gorky, and Mondrian less?  And stay there, and commit to that.  You learn about yourself that way.  Which is what this whole thing is about, understanding yourself.

JS: That’s what you think art is all about, understanding yourself?

DT: Yes.  And friends are the mirror. I’ve been lucky to have real friends.  They don’t necessarily say what you want them to say, but they say what they see.  I think that’s huge, especially for a painter.  I read a quote of Max Beckmann’s not too long ago.  He said he likes painting because it makes him objective.  A friend does that, because you might have this idea, and try to hold onto it, and protect it, but if that idea is not real for you, it’s not right, you need someone to call it out, to say, “You’re bullshitting right now.  You’re being lazy.”  So I think painting is like that.  That’s how I connect to the Beckmann quote.  In painting, you can’t lie. That’s what I think Beckmann meant—by looking at the subject, you first look at yourself.

Dov Talpaz, drawing of Jennifer Samet, 2012
JS: You are always drawing.  Like when we are together, hanging out, you always draw.  It stands out to me as a practice among artists of your generation.  How does it help you and fit in with the rest of your practice?

DT: I love drawing.  Tyler [Loftis], Chris [Protas] and I, we always drew together.  At work, at the hardware store.  And in bars. With drawing, you can do whatever you want, you’re free. Drawing is my mental exercise.

JS: Ha, I think texting is like that for me, as a writer.  Like doodling. A bit of free exercise.

DT: Do you ever try to change a text?

JS: No, not really.  Although sometimes I regret sending them.  It’s like -- oops!

DT: The cool thing about you is your honesty.  Do you have moral judgments of yourself?

JS: As I get older, maybe less.  You realize there are shades of gray with everything. It’s not so much about right and wrong.  There are a lot of shades of right and wrong. 

Dov Talpaz, Couple and a Boat, 2012, oil on canvas, 35 x 34 inches
DT: That doesn’t mean it takes away from the passion. 

JS: Yes, we share that passion, that love of debating and arguing – it’s a Jewish thing!  I had this conversation with a friend recently about food, eating meat, and it turned into a debate.  After, I was like, why am I doing this?  But I was raised to do it.  Debating is like intellectual exercise.  Just part of dinner conversation.

DT:  Yeah.  You can’t even believe the stuff I argued about.  I argued about everything. I’m thinking a lot about how much we take from our parents.  I’m realizing that my parents are such passionate people, and so freaking opinionated, and that’s where I got that opinionated thing.
Dov Talpaz, Piano Teacher, 2012, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches
JS: We’ve talked a bit about sports as a metaphor for painting.  I know how much you are into sports and how you’ve shared this passion with your painter friends, over the years.

DT:  Yes.  I love sports.  My dad is a crazy fanatic sports fan.  My brother is a sports announcer. My friends love it too, and we have staged these “Olympics” for years.  There’s a New York team versus the Michigan team.  The Weavers and the Unusual Suspects.  We have been playing each other for ten years.  But the reason it is a great metaphor for us to do the Olympics is this: It is about whether you played just to beat the opponent, or whether you played to challenge yourself.  It’s about dealing with your ego, and sports is the metaphor for it.  It’s about what energy you bring to it.  It is the same for painting. You can make a flashy painting, that shows your technique, but it will fall apart in five minutes.  Or you can really question, and challenge, and compete against yourself.  It is really hard to do.  Because your ego wants the painting to be the great painting, the one everybody loves, the one that people are like, Shit, wow, this guy is incredible.  But, fuck, that’s not what it’s about.  It’s hard to do, because it is so mysterious.  It comes back in ways that you never thought about, every time.

Dov Talpaz, Duet, 2012, oil on wood, 34 x 34 inches

*a note: Rules are meant to be broken, right?! We didn't get the photo thing organized at the bar, but luckily we bumped into each other the next day in the East Village, and staged a spontaneous street shoot, courtesy of Naomi Lev and Steve Stoppert. Thank you! 

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