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SB6 Archive (2012): The Man in Full

13 August 2017

Words by David Coggins

No More Sorrow..., 2009 mixed media on paper (25.08 x 20.32 cm) Courtesy ZieherSmith, New York
Omaha, 2009 gouache and ink on paper (27.94 x 21.59 cm) Courtesy ZieherSmith, New York

Wes Lang is a man of appetites. He likes motorcycles, beer, tattoos, and women—though not in that order. Lang is an individualist who has heroes: Philip Guston, Walt Whitman, Waylon Jennings. He’s fascinated with American history, and its champions and villains migrate through his work. Everything is in play for Lang, and he draws no distinction between the exalted and the depraved.

It’s easy to make lists with Lang–he’s an incurable collector whose vast studio is a testament to accumulation. There are stacks of skin magazines, history books, volumes of poetry, records, pipes, and maps. This living anthology is like Lang’s diorama of earthly delights. And it’s the ongoing source for his invigorating, at times searing, portrait of America.

In the past, Lang has focused on Abraham Lincoln, Indians, and racial strife. His new work moves the clock forward to California in the 1960s and ‘70s. This is the era of David Crosby, psychedelic drugs, and rebel motorcycle culture. Lang says: “This is my bastardized vision of what California was. Or what it should have been.” The last sentence is crucial. This is history not just as Lang sees it, but as he’d like it to be. Hidden beneath the veneer of rebellion is a slightest trace of wistfulness.

Lang is a natural draftsman with a deft touch with materials—which is what you’d expect, considering how often he’s tattooed himself. The walls of his studio are collisions of content, covered with drawings and paintings and collages. This is an artist who brings everything to bear in every mark he makes.

Cha Cha Cha God God God, 2008 mixed media on antique paper (71.12 x 86.36 cm) Courtesy ZieherSmith, New York
Sunday School, 2008 mixed media on antique paper (30.48 x 25.4 cm) Courtesy ZieherSmith, New York

Lang may be restless, but he still produces direct portraits. Consider the large drawing of David Crosby, taken from his 1971 album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. In Lang’s adaptation, Crosby’s stare is more intense, his eyes fiercer. History collapses and we confront an unvarnished gaze, undiminished by time.

Not everything here reaches that level of gravity, nor does it seek to. In one large painting, there’s a grinning cartoon toilet beneath the phrase “if it feels good, do it.” It makes no case for itself other than its low-key humor and graphic punch, though it does reference early R. Crumb. Like Crumb, Lang appreciates iconography and language with strong rhetorical flair. “All the weed in the world” is a perfect counterculture slogan, while “you can have her I don’t want her” sounds like deluded barroom talk at closing time. Lang continues to provoke in just the right way, daring us to take offense.

In the end, what we appreciate about Lang is his extraordinarily realized world, one inhabited by presidents, poets, and Penthouse pets. The protagonists may be drawn from the past, but Lang remains an artist of our time. That’s because he looks at history not for instruction but as a reflection of our own desires. Lang’s work illuminates because he looks back clearly, through the burning of the days.

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