MEET WES LANG
The Art of Being a Bad Boy
Kanye West adores him. So does the fashion world.
Wes Lang has become the latest darling of the art world by doing exactly what he wants to.
Photography by Casper Sejersen
Written by Kristoffer Jensen
|EDITED BY VICTOR THOFT. THANKS TO ARoS and V1 Gallery.|
He has big lumberjack hands. Around his wrist hangs a Rolex gold watch and virtually every inch of his body is covered in tattoos. His misfit bad-ass aura makes 41-year old Wes Lang look nothing like one of the world’s most highly sought after current artists, whose works sell quicker than he can make them.
Rock lyrics, references to American biker culture, tattoos, snakes and playboy bunnies go into Wes Lang’s sampler along with skulls, Native Americans and intricate drawings of Walt Whitman, Willie Nelson, Chet Baker and Ernest Hemingway. Every time you think you have him cornered artistically, he evades you and goes somewhere else. His works present a magnificent topology of Americana in all its beauty and horror and at the same time his art is a very personal journey deep into Wes Lang’s own soul.
His oeuvre made the iconic rock band The Grateful Dead choose Lang as their designer for their big box set in 2012, and it brings the hype to Wes Lang’s own line of clothing, Best Wishes, and made superstar Kanye West choose Wes Lang to design the Kanye merchandise for his recent Yeesuz Tour.
"It was a real honour, when Kanye called. It kind of blew my mind," he says. "But I don’t talk about it, because it is not important. What is important is the fact that I helped him convey his message to the world. Everything should always be about combining people’s creative energies and putting something positive out into the world.
I chose which commercial projects I take on very carefully. I don’t want to get involved in anything that could call into question my artistic integrity,” he says. But even here Wes Lang is elusive. Just when you thought that he had been catapulted to stardom with a sizeable celebrity following, Wes Lang shows up at the Aros Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark with his first major art museum exhibition.
This is where we find him, pacing around the exhibition halls, putting the finishing touches on paintings and creating new ones. For the exhibition he had his entire downtown Los Angeles studio packed up, loaded into a container and shipped across the Atlantic only to be set up here at the Danish museum.
From Jersey to Los Angeles
A ghetto blaster in the corner blares out The Smiths’ “This Charming Man". Wes Lang always works to music and sometimes he even steals the words from the lyrics for his paintings. Again he prefers ambivalence. The bisexual and controversial Morrissey becomes the soundtrack to a freshly painted canvas in front of us portraying a young Chet Baker. "He is one of my big heroes, but also a very tragic character," he says and nods toward the painting of the jazz icon. "He was a junkie and not a very nice guy at all. But that is not the whole story. It was his drug abuse that made him a bad person. I always draw him looking young, handsome – from a period in his life when he only smoked pot occasionally," says Wes Lang and balances awkwardly on his tilted chair holding a soda can and displaying a barely contained urge to go smoke a cigarette.
"I grew up in a creative home that was always very supportive to me. My family is small and everyone works with their hands and minds creatively. I still sketch and draw on paper my uncle brought home for me from his small printing house,” he says.
Lang grew up in Chatham New Jersey, about 40 miles from Bushwick in Brooklyn, where his studio used to be. A few years ago he and his girlfriend and their dog moved to the Hollywood Hills, where he at one stage was a resident artist at the legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
"When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Snoopy, and I clearly remember how I drew him and different Star Wars figures. Apparently I was so good at it that my mom let me paint the walls of an entire room in our house with Star Wars characters. This was when I was six years old. That was pretty fucking cool," he says. His mum was an interior designer and his dad a jazz critic and owner of a record store, where Wes Lang also worked when he wasn’t in school. Which was rare.
"I was no good in school. In fact, I was terrible. But I was encouraged to make art, and I knew that was what I wanted to do, so I did not really care much for school and hardly ever paid attention."
Acts of Kindness
Nevertheless, Wes Lang has read lots of good literature and studied his favourite artists meticulously. He mentions painters such as Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon, Jean Michel Basquait and Martin Kippenberger as some of his biggest inspirations. "And I just love Damien Hirsts’ grand way of doing things," he says, and explains how one of his works, an 18-carat solid gold skull is a little act of homage to his colleague Hirst.
But if you try to accuse Wes Lang of being a political artist with all his images of dead Indians and solid gold skulls, he just shakes his head.
"I am not interested in politics at all. I have no idea what is going on in the world these days, because I don’t read the papers and I never watch the news. I just work, ride my motorcycles and collect cars. Trying to keep my life simple," says Lang.
Being the son of republican parents, though, he will admit to not being a big Obama fan. In fact, he is quite the opposite. Instead his big revelation came from music, when his math teacher took him to his first Grateful Dead concert.
"That had a big influence on me, and we since went to many concerts together," he says. But his old math teacher died in 2010. Another friend of his, Dash Stone, died in the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy. In fact, his dead friends often show up in Wes Lang’s motives, sometimes literally, i.e. as portraits, but also figuratively as the countless skulls that often converge on Lang’s canvases. His exhibition "Skulls and Shit" from 2006 was a direct tribute to Dash. “I had no idea how to process his death, and it took me over five years to finally begin my mourning properly. Today death for me is more about doing what you have to do, while you still can, because sooner or later this guy will come for you,”He says and points to one of his paintings of the Grim Reaper, who seems to be watching us from the eerie emptiness of his eye sockets.
“I really mean that in a positive sense. You have to embrace your life and do exactly what you want to. That is the essence of everything I do.” - "Acts of kindness", it says in several of his more recent works. The reason being that the Chinese philosophy of Taoism more and more has become a part of Wes Lang’s life in the past couple of years.
The artist’s life right now is about focus on work and finding peace of mind – being at ease with who he is, for better or worse. “I feel that I am in a very good place in my life right now, and I just want this whole thing to become even bigger. There is a lot of stuff I want to do over the next decade, but I should be able fit it all in, if I can keep my pace up. These days I work six days a week and I am very passionate about it.
Every day I push it one step further, and I feel like I can pretty much keep doing that forever.”
Born: New Jersey
Current City: Los Angeles