Gary Lang by Saul Ostrow

BOMB 45 Fall 1993
045 Fall 1993

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Gary Lang 01 Bomb 045

Gary Lang, Top of the Sky, 1992, acrylic paint, installation, 13 feet diameter. All photos courtesy Michael Klein.

We usually imagine that the spiritual is meditative, placemarked by the precision of sacred geometry or gentle ephemeral haze. Not so for Gary Lang, his targets and grids are imprecise and his high-key color accesses the ecstasy of whirling dervishes. For Lang, the spiritual is vigorous, sensuous, and very much of this world.

Saul Ostrow The reason I’m late is that I just had a street corner conference with this artist, which could’ve lasted two more hours. He was trying to convince me to do an interview with him.

Gary Lang You just did.

SO We’ve had very interesting conversations over the years. I wish there were thought bubbles in life.

GL Dylan said, “If they knew what was inside my mind they would probably put my head in a guillotine.”

SO But this artist’s one of those people whose always telling you how well he’s doing. He had an opening in Dusseldorf yesterday: twenty thousand people came. It could’ve been a rock concert.

GL Is that what he said?

SO Close.

GL If feminism has a target it’s got to be rock and roll stars.

SO MTV has more tits and ass per square inch than porn films.

GL I get more from watching the weather channel. I like watching the storm chasers track tornadoes. A storm is a great metaphor, creation through destruction.

SO What was lost with the garden of Eden was that notion of presence.

GL Which was never ours to begin with. So what are you going to do this summer?

SO Stay here and work.

GL It’s turning out that I’m going to be right here, doing the most exotic thing—working in my studio. It’s a privilege.

SO You find painting a privilege?

GL Painting is a liberating process that catapults me. I’m tracking, living through my questions, discovering, digging. It’s like excavating.

SO Your paintings have a systemic quality—the transitions from left to right, and from top to bottom, seem laid out.

GL They look that way and to some extent they are, but then there is all this space between the right and the left, and the top and the bottom, that is born out of meandering from the reds through the blues; and crossing the grays and the blacks and the whites. All these things occur like ghost areas. It’s a journey with no maps. They’re just rest spots. The newest painting, Heart, is very different than the Mirror Paintings. This is a tough picture, it won’t let me be.

SO It’s too active or … ?

GL It’s uncertain. I don’t know if it’s found itself. It has arrived at a place that imposes no peace on me. It does what it does, which can be really disagreeable.

SO None of your paintings are static or peaceful.

GL The process enables me to feel that way. The images transmit realities metaphorically through digital patterns.

SO What kind of realities?

GL Sensorial, I imagine.

SO Given how visual they are, everything flattens out, they resist their own illusionistic space.

GL It’s never been my intention to paint illusionistic or spacial paintings, rather to exploit the process.

SO I meant in terms of a model of reality, retinal reality. Those early collages that you showed me were so obsessive; thousands of staples, the color range … Somehow, I remember all of them being hot-pink.

GL Yeah. My favorite color. The color of candy, Pepto-Bismol, Mexico.

SO Those collages are 15 years old. I’m saying that your notion of a reality has always been high-keyed.

GL A certain fly egg incubates for eight or six years. And when it’s born, it lives for 15 minutes. 15 minutes of life. They maximize it, they’re ecstatic, for 15 minutes.

SO This Western notion of the spiritual—maybe it’s a Protestant or pre-Baroque Catholic notion—is quiet and mediative. Ecstatic we have a hard time understanding: Dervishes who work themselves into a frenzy, or Seventh Day Adventists who writhe around speaking in tongues.

GL My orientations are ecstatic. Maybe it’s the other side of the same coin, but to me, it’s never been about deep breathing.

SO You do want these perceived as religious paintings?

GL If they’re digested and consumed, then in some way we are vibrating in unison.

SO The Gregorian chant, the mantra, reading from the Koran, or in some Jewish practices where you get the whole congregation chanting the same prayer, there’s nothing but that unity.

GL The paintings are vehicles for trapping and transferring Life Force. So in that sense it’s like trapping energy.

SO The other model of the spiritual is conservation, pulling within rather than …

GL Blowing it out. Offering it.

SO The middle high-key colors are very much in your face. There is no de-materialization. There’s a hard edge.

GL Hard wake up calls.

SO Their structures are insistently repetitive, yet no moment is like any other moment.

GL This process is direct, un-self conscious, and defenseless. It’s an express vehicle, you don’t take the same step twice.

SO What do you mean defenseless?

GL It’s not protecting itself. It’s not concerned with the way it looks. It’s simply an effort to move forward.

SO Did you ever …

GL Between you, me, and the wall, I spent time in the Hasidic world studying metaphysics in my twenties. Gained weight, got pale, ate prunes.

SO You were brought up Orthodox.

GL I was brought up to respect human beings.

SO You were practicing Hici? Do Hicis believe in ecstasy? With the dancing Jews?

GL Sure. I was very connected to this place, but less connected now …

SO What you had mentioned about thematics was more towards a Cabbalist tradition, which is also a non-Western means of transcendence. It’s the search for the code.

GL I see the paintings as a codification. I’ll tell you that I think they’re a transference of love. This ecstatic meditation, if you want to call it that—is the birthplace of these objects.

SO The Hebraic notion of God’s love is significantly different than the Christian notion of God’s love.

GL Are the Christians the ones who killed paganism?

SO Yes.

GL Well, they were wrong. It’s in our nature to be high-tech pagans.

SO I was going to say that your coloring could be hedonistic, but your structure would never allow for it.

GL Are you saying that they’re dirty-minded grid paintings?

SO They’re sort of hot and heavy, like breathing over the telephone but the telephone never lets you consummate.

GL I can’t see it. They’re like, suck me, lick me, come-shot grids. That’s very accurate. I guess you’re getting a sexual reading from the palate.

SO No, I’m saying the metaphor is self-contradictory. Part of it is the separation between sensation and form—the old subject/object split. How one experiences them and what they are, are two different things. It goes back to what we were saying earlier: they seem systemic, and yet, they’re decidedly different. Because you can’t find the system, because it’s intuitive.

GL That’s wonderful. But the system is the fruit of intuition, too, the systems are changing. You can see the systems breaking down, cross-pollinating in order to find something else. The systems search for a break, a clearing: they tighten up, relax, and become something else.

SO The paintings give us the opposite of what they appear to be.

GL Maybe it’s not even visual in the end. Maybe the sensations that the experience evokes are just using the visual to distract the viewer. In other words, they’re visual, so you look at them; but in the process of looking at them, something else takes place. In the final analysis it’s not what you see, but what you are. What you are is changing as we speak. You start out by looking at a painting, but you come back to yourself. You have an experience with yourself. Maybe that’s the subject matter.

SO Originally, both in early Christianity and Judaism, the moment of obtaining Godhead is described as a sense of loss and knowledge at the same time.

GL I never understood that sense of loss. Loss of ignorance? I don’t think of it as a loss. Dead skin, old clothes. The program is to find some place, bear some product that will change people, move them.

SO In no specific direction, just from where they were?

GL This isn’t moral or political. I am and the work I do is a force of nature. I hope I’m a good guy. I don’t think you can fall, Saul. I don’t think you can fall.

SO In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the whole nature of the fall and salvation is a question of judgement, as opposed to William Blake, who sees God as a creator.

GL … Everywhere. As everything.

SO Exactly. Blake makes a painting of God as a sudden burst with a compass, the great architect. And Milton’s God is the God of the Word, of the Law.

GL Like the Gomora?

SO Yes.

GL Within the Jewish principal, you have the ecstatic and you have the law; and they are seen as opposing forces, but they’re not. That’s how I see these paintings, structure and ecstasy.

SO During the Hasid, one celebrates having been chosen to be given the Law. That’s what the ecstacy is.

GL The ecstacy is in giving, not being chosen.

SO But why does one dance? Because one has the Law. Otherwise, you would be without anchor, without …

GL … Without dancers.

SO (pause) Yeah. I want to back up, I like this notion of hightech paganism—you described your paintings once, as information bites.

GL The mind processes information like screens of electron clusters; passing codes from one receiver to another.

SO Have you read any cyberpunk? In cyberspace, the grid is always described as glowing, multicolored, floating pattern of colors.

GL No, but that’s all that I imagine it is. I imagine that our fiber and our very being is codified and colorful, and extraordinary: pulsating and resonant. It’s primal.

SO How did the circle, and the octagon …

GL The octagonals were gifts, so were the first 13 circles. The circle is the other side of the line. They move in a different way. They’re very hypnotic. They do one thing, then they do the opposite. They contradict themselves simultaneously.

SO Unlike the grids, there’s no implied system. They’re more random.

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Gary Lang, Mirrored Gate, 1992, acrylic on canvas, triptych, each: 72 × 72 inches.

GL I do the same things theoretically with the circles that I do with the grids; passing ideas and possibilities through one another in a mathematical sequence, they’re growing and shrinking and evaporating and expanding. There’s some epic abandon.

SO When you made the transition to the circles did you consciously look for a model?

GL No, I was looking for some balance. I was tired of that freefall. These paintings enabled me to hover. To hover over the gravity of disorientation and cacaphony. I began by stockpiling intersections as a way of locating my intentions and exploiting my desires. I’ll continue in this direction if it offers me salvation.

SO It’s like Newman’s sublime—the here and now as being in the present.

GL The here and now is the wake up call. The rest is sleep. My biggest fear is sleep. I don’t want to be asleep.

SO You mean a metaphoric sleep, not a somatic state.

GL I’m a terrible insomniac. Not by choice.

SO In Goya’s, The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, an Enlightenment gentleman has fallen asleep over his books and these bats hover …

GL He’s afraid of what his nightmares will bring him.

SO He’s afraid of the loss of the rational.

GL Yeah, well, I have no problem with that.

SO Your painting is the loss of the logical, if not the rational, because any painting has how many given lines in it?

GL Two billion lines. The logic isn’t in the order, and the rational isn’t in the logic. I just finished my first stained glass window and it has 564 cuts of glass in it. If you associate stained glass windows with religion, this piece suggests that God is definitely not a straight line. It’s a very awkward image, but very beautiful.

SO Do you find yourself concerned with the notion of keeping painting alive?

GL Painting is alive.

SO Do you see a lot of the art that’s being done now as dominated by distrust?

GL By negative impulses. We all hurt, we’re all angry, we’re all confused. I’m involved in something else. There’s a virus, the virus revolves around an absence of faith. Faith is more valuable than experience.

SO Do you see these paintings as a cure?

GL They’re my cure, I would say that they have a healing effect.

SO Mondrian saw his paintings as windows onto another order of things, in the same way that Malevich did. He, like you, continued to hand paint them with a tiny little brush, constantly making adjustments: I can see where somebody might make reference to these and Broadway Boogie-Woogie.

GL Yeah, let those lines tilt a little bit. I feel closer to Matisse or Paul Klee. For a long time I would look at Klee and nothing would happen. I thought they were sweet. Now, when I look at one of his paintings, they remind me of how tender human beings can be. And how compassionate and full of love human beings can be. I am floored when I see them. I am reminded of my value. They erode all that self-hatred in one fell swoop.

Saul Ostrow is a sculptor, critic and curator living and working in New York City.

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Originally published in

BOMB 45, Fall 1993

Featuring interviews with Gus Van Sant, Trisha Brown, Bernard Cooper, Francine Prose by Deborah Eisenberg, Mike Bidlo, Rob Weiss, Han Ong, Chen Kaige, Lawrence Chua, and Garry Lang.

Read the issue
045 Fall 1993