Over the last several decades, artist Wes Lang has been honing his craft involving, amongst other things, a tireless, obsessive mining of a post-pop American landscape.
Many of the artist’s influences are a function of a distinct autobiographical experience with certain exceptions; the indigenous American as well as other totems of the American West, and painters and sculptors from middle of last century such as Twombly, Guston, Kline, Mitchell, Bacon dove-tailing on up to the more contemporary such as Basquiat, Kippenberger, and Mike Kelley.
To date, Lang has made his mark primarily on canvas and paper – though his practice extends to include cast bronze sculpture, collage, hotel stationery, fabric, glass and precious metals – and is known for creating bombastic mélanges often brimming with elegantly rendered, still rough-around-the-edges imagery of grim reapers, Indian chiefs, fallen country music icons, sultry seductresses, long lost folk legends, dead authors, roses and other flora, birds, horses, all of which jockey for prominence within compositions sewn together and resolved by cryptic scrawls with a bittersweet vernacular.
An autodidactic painter who learned through art handling at the Guggenheim Museum and an apprenticeship in a tattoo shop, Lang rose to pop culture prominence following his artistic contributions to the musical platform of Kanye West in 2013 and his regular exhibitions at ZieherSmith gallery in New York.
His first monograph, which contains an essay by author James Frey, focuses on his works on paper – complicated arrangements of his typically American iconography, expertly rendered in ink and paint and juxtaposed in riotous combinations, selected from a decade’s worth of material.
Lang currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
"His paintings, which are dense with weirdly cheerful shreds of song lyrics or repurposed lines from the Tao, tend to be a literal record of his life, or what he'd like his life to be: what he's listening to, what he's thinking about, what he's trying to remember."
“I like to take American history and then completely ignore it. I come at it visually, taking images and telling my own story. It comes out of criticism and great love. There are problems with America, and we all know that, but I'm attracted to the dark side of things.”
‘Sittin’ on a Rainbow’ was a one-evening presentation at the Chateau Marmont featuring the Brooklynite’s intricate drawings, each executed directly onto the hotel’s stationery. The pieces, all produced during the artist’s month-long stay in room 34 at the infamous Hollywood hotel, provide a visual journal of his experience there and reveal the contemplative effect this sojourn had on his work.
Demonstrating the artist’s range of visual interests and his technical aptitude, the imagery took on several different themes: bird illustrations, reminiscent of vintage wildlife plates as in ‘Time Will Tell,’ 2011; meticulously rendered nude or partially nude women; almost exact replications of the hotel’s logo in pencil; and acrylic and somewhat morbid depictions including skeletons and skulls.
“The base of it all is American history, but it’s also self-reflective: sometimes, the skeletons and the reapers are me. The women are just plain beautiful to draw.”
Lang designed the ‘Yeezus’ tour merchandise for rapper, fashion designer and entrepreneur Kanye West featuring skeletons clad in the Confederate flag, skulls wreathed in roses, Indian headdresses, and more.
Lang’s intention with the Yeezus shirts was to create concert tees that people want to hold on to forever, because they’re just as memorable and awesome as the show itself. Kanye’s fans promptly turned them into collector’s items, proving that they will stand the test of time and become legendary, vintage pieces.
Following their successful ‘Yeezus’ collaboration, Lang and West teamed with Bravado on a merch set including a three-piece range of hoodies sporting an image of snow-covered mountains near Jackson Hole.
The pullovers utilized a haphazard font to express the event on the back and the Wyoming location on the sleeves and chest area, while a now iconic text-focused black cap, complete with contrasting embroidery of the event details, rounded out the collection.
"If anything has been as talked about with regards to the Yeezus tour as much as the religion-heavy imagery, it’s the Wes Lang-designed tees that have filled the merch booths."
Lang and West also collaborated on a capsule collection of long-sleeved tees. The release included the ‘Frozen Yellow’ long sleeve — complete with “Following the light, to live to fly, do by not doing” graphic — worn by Kanye at the ‘Ye’ listening party in Jackson Hole, the ‘Skeleton’ tee, also in frozen yellow, and the ‘Bird’ long sleeve in ‘Vapor.’
"The standout from the drop is the Frozen Yellow Wyoming iteration, featuring 'Following the light, to live to fly, do by not doing' front and center, accounting for the tee that Kanye wore at his 'Ye' listening party in Jackson Hole, Wyoming."
Original British rock & roll jewelry brand, The Great Frog, enlisted Lang to collaborate on two rings channeling the pair’s affiliation with dark motifs such as skulls and old American iconography, exclusive to Dover Street Market London.
For this collaboration, the artist took designs similar to those he created for the retailer’s tenth anniversary and gave them an even more premium update. With a shared passion for riding motorbikes and the freedom it brings, Lang decided to use the Native American skull and headdress, prevalent in much of his work and an iconic image that resonates with many as the embodiment of freedom and resistance.
Lang collaborated with Marc Jacobs’s stationery offshoot, Bookmarc, to produce a special collection of 14-karat gold leaf stationery with an accompanying box set. Limited to a run of 50, each set featured a brass ring, seal wax, and a complete set of the stationery (five different designs with widely recognizable macabre elements), hand-signed and numbered by Lang.
Lang created an exclusive collection of limited-edition engraved Rolex watches for London’s Bamford Watch Department featuring his signature tattoo-influenced style engraved on the watch cases and bracelets.
The collection includes the Rolex Submariner, the Rolex Milgauss, and a two-toned Rolex GMT-Master II, and also includes a distinctive and highly collectible wooden watch box designed by Lang. The Wes Lang x Bamford Watch Department Custom Rolexes were released exclusively at Dover Street Market in London.
“Wes and I went through all the paintings he’d done and selected certain elements that stood out the most to him. Many of the pieces feature more subtle engravings – I love how he likes to keep certain things hidden.”
In high school, Lang replicated Grateful Dead images on the back of his buddy’s jean jacket, which led to his math teacher calling him into the office over the PA system – so he could enlist Lang to paint Dead artwork on his Vietnam coat. Lang’s teacher then took him to see the Grateful Dead in concert in 1990, a year considered by many fans to be one of the band’s finest.
Lang was ecstatic to be approached to design the artwork for ‘Spring 1990,’ an 18-disc box set of concert recordings from the band’s spring 1990 tour. The box cover features an intricate skull clad in a colorful Native American headdress, while the individual CD albums and discs contain the artist’s detailed renderings of butterflies, birds, and skeletons. To coincide with the launch, the band also released a limited run of collectable merchandise featuring Lang’s work.
“The Grateful Dead, for me, is America at its finest. Their tales of life and death, love and loss, brightness and darkness encompass the true story of this great country of ours. Sinners are redeemed, fortunes are found, the lives we all lead or wish we did.”
This self-titled exhibition at Almine Rech’s Paris outpost delivers new takes on his signature motifs, such as skeletons in headdresses riding horses, grim reapers holding red roses, Playboy bunnies, and other ephemera culled from the post-pop American landscape, while referencing compositional elements from his favorite artists including Cy Twombly, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Martin Kippenberger, and Mike Kelley.
Spearheading a collagist approach, Lang unveiled character-packed paintings for his fifth solo show with Copenhagen’s Eighteen Gallery, titled ‘Taking Off For Other Dimensions.’
Across the pieces, Lang injected a visual psychedelia of skulls and demons alongside popular cartoon subjects including Spider-Man, Bugs Bunny, and The Smurfs. In displaying these works, the artist paired larger pieces beside smaller works that were mounted atop boldly colored frames that created a unique contrast against the white walls of the institute.
Lang quoted the seminal American teacher and author Ram Dass in his exhibition statement, seemingly evoking the existentialist sentiment across his new paintings that ostensibly represent spontaneous collections of past experiences, both good and bad.
“I'm drawn to darker imagery and I really like to play against that with texts that are very positive and try to teach you something about yourself. I read a lot of Buddhist texts and Ram Dass. I use a lot of Taoist thoughts, looking at the contradictions within us to being honest with people and finding a nice balance within you. Accepting that you’re both things. That is what my work is supposed to get out of you. The pictures are punches in your face, but the way I compose my work kind of forces viewers to walk around, to read it, and get involved with it.”
‘The Believer,’ titled after the 1964 John Coltrane album, consisted of 4 new large-scale paintings created at Lang’s Boyle Heights studio in LA.
Coltrane himself looms large in the series—he is rendered figuratively several times, and the works also contain written Coltrane song titles including ‘Ascension,’ ‘Manifestation,’ ‘Voyage,’ and ‘My Favorite Things.’ Other jazz giants including Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk make appearances alongside ancient Egyptian icons like the Great Sphinx of Giza and Tutankhamen and consistent Lang themes including roses, teepees, and a large-scale Native American chief.
The works are not monuments for jazz legends; they are living meditations, testimonies to creators and explorers, reminders that through curiosity and practice we have the potential to become better musicians, painters, writers and humans.
This retrospective show at Denmark’s ARoS museum presented 60 works both old and new from Lang’s dynamic career thus far, including collaborations with Harley-Davidson and Rolex alongside projects with iconic musicians like Kanye West and The Grateful Dead.
‘The Studio’ presented itself as a recreation of Lang’s actual studio in Los Angeles and features many of his sketches, furniture and quirky ornaments — transforming the space into Lang’s hub of creativity.
Rooted in Adobe’s mission to enable creativity for all, the annual Adobe MAX creativity conference was offered as a free event in 2020. Adobe MAX inspired, educated and entertained creators through product deep dives, luminary masterclasses and community events.
Lang was joined as an invited guest speaker by internationally-renowned photographers and artists including Annie Leibovitz, Ai Weiwei, and Shepard Fairey at the uniquely immersive and engaging digital experience.
“I try to live life that has less challenge and more action towards positivity. I choose wisely what I’m going to get involved with.”
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