The room is dark and crowded. Nearly two hundred partygoers are divided in half by parallel rows of prayer candles on the floor, creating a dimly lit path to an unaccompanied drum set and guitar. The drunken commotion is interrupted with drearily elegiac Appalachian music, and the spectral emergence of a Reaper-like figure carrying a human skeleton. Proceeding between the mystified onlookers, the hooded guest follows the flickering trail, places the bones in front of the pentagram-adorned bass drum, and turns to the crowd. Behind him, two musicians take the stage. After a creepy pause tempered only by the continuing old-time drones of fiddle playing, the cloaked mystery follows the candles back into the darkness, and disappears.
The scene is from Wes Lang’s late September birthday party at his Brooklyn studio. What followed was a dizzying set of live doom metal and an assaultive light show that included a silent projection of the 70s porn classic Devil in Miss Jones. In the early morning hours, the remaining 30 intrepid attendees—including artists, collectors, bikers, gallery directors, publishers, friends, and acquaintances—would move the bash to a local strip club, where an inebriated Lang made sure everyone was offered a lap dance. The night was full of decadence and exaltation; of high and low culture; of deep nostalgia and exhaustive celebration—a worthy tableau vivant for the career of an artist intimate with raw and poetic juxtapositions.
It was the summer of 2005 that Lang’s eighth solo show The Promised Land opened at ZieherSmith gallery in Chelsea. The exhibition was a veritable roadside museum of meticulously chosen artifacts, and masterfully rendered portraits of colonial Americana. Though Lang had already made a name for himself with previous shows, the suite of colored pencil and graphite drawings in Promised Land would successfully demonstrate his hard-earned skills as a draftsman, and his gifted visual intelligence. Mock Native American pictographs reminiscent of Amos “Bad Bull” Lee, and densely penciled visages of heroic Indian chiefs were embellished with scrawled quotes from motivational speakers, and lines from Grateful Dead songs. The confluence of America past and present expressed a commendable distaste for irony, and an artistic elan bordering on spiritual. It was a show infused with optimism and tolerance, offering no obvious prescience of the daemonic work to come.
A violent physical altercation, a long year of hard partying, a growing skepticism of the art world, and the distilled mourning for a close friend who perished in the 9/11 attacks left Lang bruised and angry over the next year. During this period, he rose each day to print out loads of Internet pornography and grab a taxi to the studio. Once there, he would cocoon himself in a haze of sinsimillia smoke, blare anything from Slayer to Willie Nelson, and attack each canvas with a spray-bottle, an airbrush, and jars of acrylic until it surrendered into a dismal patina of concrete-gray and muted primary tones. After amassing a sufficient pile of archaic imagery cut from old textbooks and vintage biker magazines, he divided his attention between the copy machine and overhead projector, tracing the imposing central images that would carry the narrative of his new work. When the overhead bulb was flicked off (and more weed was smoked), the tedium of collaging began. Hours were spent staring deep into the ashen backgrounds, searching out the best point and position for each cutout image. If the process became frustrating, Lang would simply work on a drawing.
The resultant body of work is as shocking in its departure from his earlier efforts as it is in content. Black history, debauched sexuality, drugs, bikers, and even the artist’s personal story are now all appropriate subjects for a wandering and boozy ideation. The most vulnerable aspects of cultural identity are routinely, and ruthlessly, revisited. If the muse that inspired Promised Land is present, she has bared her claws.
What has remained constant is Lang’s penchant for recontextualizing American visual heritage to discover new implications therein. He is a consummate collector of historic imagery and forsaken relics. Even the classic-style tattoos that cover his arms and hands render him a flesh-and-blood cabinet of curiosities. If he is nostalgic for another time, it is in the way 60s independent filmmaker Sam Peckinpah might have been; a character Lang identifies with. Like Peckinpah, he wants to revisit icons of bygone American-male heroicism in a statement of protest against contemporary culture. He broached the subject over some beers late one night at his apartment.
“I’m not saying I want to go out and get in a fight every night and fuck every girl I meet—even though I do things like that (hearty laughter). It’s more about standing up and being who you want to be, no matter what the cost.”
Turning to the subject of art: “Everything is cheaply made. Artists don’t take the time with their craft anymore. I live what I’m making. The statements have been harsher because I’ve been really fed-up with a lot of shit. This fucking pantywaist of a world that we live in is full of people complaining that they aren’t getting what they deserve. There are no men anymore. Everything is so catered towards comfort and having whatever you want.
“The death imagery started with facing a friend’s death,” he continued, “I don’t feel like crying anymore, or even talking about it, but I have to get it out somehow. I felt a shift last summer when I was sucker-punched down some stairs outside of a bar. I physically could not work for a while. I was angry. When I finally got back into work, I had to let it all out.”
Finally, he discussed future work: “I’m feeling less pissed-off now. I think my newer stuff will combine everything I’ve been doing for the last four years. It’s not gonna’ be a show about Indians or bikers or black people, but a combination of everything.”
NY Art Magazine