Creative Space: Conversation with Gary Lang

By Demitri Corbin

“I like my head empty, man!  I like my belly full and my head empty!  So, I would write these words down but I never thought they were ART,” – Gary Lang
Gary Lang is a very busy man.  His exhibition, “Circles/Words” on display at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills is making him very popular and hard to pin down.  But with word that the exhibit has been extended he made special time for me to visit his art studio inside his home.  We sat poolside and drank our Starbucks coffee as we talked.DC: The show is extended…GL:  Yes.DC:   …until…GL:  The show is extended  ‘til the 27th of this month, May.  Well, we got so much press, they just…because of the press, because of the Los Angeles Times.  LA Times’ Dave Pagel described the show as the most beautiful place in all of Los Angeles.   That’s major.  I mean the attendance spiked.  Every day it spiked, three days in a row.

DC:  Wonderful.

GL:  That’s huge.   These are not people who are excessively or necessarily complimentary.

DC:  Well, I’m going to tell you what my friend Mona said.

GL:  She was lovely.

DC:  And I sent you an email of all the pictures so you can take a look at them…. what she said was, “the circles give off a vibration that trigger certain emotions.” That’s the first thing you had said to me years ago when you were telling me about your paintings.

GL:  That’s true.  She keyed right in.

DC:  She is empathic.

GL:  What does that mean?

DC:  She empathizes.  She feels things very strongly.

GL:   She was beautiful.  There was one picture (holding out his hands wide) that said it all.  I mean, that’s a good photograph.

DC:  So she went around and had a selfie-shoot with each piece throughout the gallery.  We have about 25 pictures.  It was fun going there and seeing a couple of other patrons to turn and see they big wheel but when you turn and see someone standing in front of it you see the perspective and it really is mind blowing .  You see the scale it and get close and see the detail of the brush strokes-

GL: And the heart, the love.

DC:  It really is cool.

GL  I was so touched to see you there.  It meant a lot to me.  I want to send you the L.A. Times.

DC:  I’ll look it up.  I want to see the studio

GL:  We can see the studio, it’s kind of a mess.  It’s kind of special.  I’ve been busy.  I’ve got a show in New York, a show in LA, a little project here, I’ve got a talk in Camarillo on Friday, and I leave for Colorado on Wednesday.

DC:  So, is this a high time?

GL:  Always a high time

DC:  It’s a beautiful gallery.  I want to talk particularly the word pictures.

GL:  Did you get into them?

DC:  We didn’t take pictures there.

GL: I’ll send you a bunch.

DC:  Two or three of them really appealed to me, one in particular.  You know how you look at a piece and something say, “that’s mine.”

GL:  With the words you mean?

DC:  Yes.

GL:  So, I did this word piece at this place called The Blackboard Gallery.  I wanted to transform the entire space into a poem, so I did this word piece all across the gallery, write across the wall. I invited a group of artists that I did not know previously, and gave each one a letter, a color, and a brush.  I’ll give a talk this Friday night, it’s called CI Arts/Studio Arts Channel Island.

DC:  So, do you get time to work with other people?

GL:  I do get time.  I make time.  I love people and you know, I don’t want to be one of those people who gets…uh…you know…I’m already isolated from the world living here.  And I’m with a gallery that is exclusive.  You can’t get my work anywhere else in the world other than from this place, Ace Gallery.  And everybody knows that.

He stops mid-sentence and speaks to his wife and fellow artist, Ruth Pastine, as she walks, two-fisted with coffee, towards the art studio.

GL:  Do you remember young and handsome Demitri?

DC:  Young and handsome?!  That’s great!

RP:  of course I do.  How are you, Demitri?

DC:  I’m good Ruth, how are you?

RP:  Good to see you!

DC:  Good to see you, too!

She disappears into her part of the studio.

GL:  Yeah, the words, you know, it’s not about me.  These are words-this is the stuff of people…Chance (his son) said to me when he was a tiny kid, he said, “I think all the people in the world are one family.”  And I said, “Shit kid, you got it.”

Our talk shifts to catching up on personal news, then good news and bad news and how it affects his work.

GL:  You know, I was working on this piece and I was listening to National Public Radio, NPR everyday with my mood – you know, I’m like a giant mood ring, you know, changes colors.  And I was listening to National Public Radio when Bush was looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction.  And my pallete was getting darker and darker and I realized if I didn’t turn that off (NPR) I’d have an eleven-foot black dot.  Seriously, I was taking on that much other worldly poison.

DC:  That brings me to when we first met and you told me how you came to Ojai.  You can tell me that story again.

GL:  I don’t even remember how I got here.  It just happened.  I think I had outlived my appetite for the tenor of ambition in Manhattan.  I mean I didn’t care anymore.  Seven cocktail parties a week for three decades.  And if you don’t outgrow that you start looking like a (px%#!)

DC:  (laughing) I don’t think I can write that.

GL:  You know, it’s just unappetizing, undignified.  I think at some point you have to stand outside yourself, your own ambitions and like Shakespeare says, “To be or not to be.”  And once you learn that, you can do it anywhere and I wanted to do it in a quiet place, calm place, because I had a little boy and a little girl on her way, so I wanted to get out of that kind the gravity of the market place and into a calm place of grandeur. This is good…this place is good.  Ojai is home.

GL:  I’ve planted a lot of trees since I’ve been here.  I built the studio.  I care dearly for everyone I’ve ever met here.  That’s all real, that’s a measure of success in itself.  When you feel love and concern for your community that’s a victory.  It’s not an egoistic victory, it’s a humanitarian victory, to care for  your neighbors.  You take on a maturity as you get older.  You go through a few wars and you start to see things a little differently.  You start to consider others more (laughs) out grow that narcissism of the city.

We chat on about the struggles of working as artists in New York and L.A.

GL:  One thing I love about being a painter is that you don’t need a budget and you don’t need a cast, or whatever it takes to get a movie done, it’s complex, bankers approval, etc., etc.  I can just take my brush, walk into my studio and start massaging pigments on surfaces and I’m in heaven.  I’m like a caveman, you know, I love it, though.  I walk across my own property, get up there … you know, I worry, I worry because it’s uncertain being an artist.  You don’t know from month to month whether you’re going to be living in Ojai or a trailer park in Indio!

DC:  Right!

GL:  That’s what I’m dealing with, that’s why my hair gets gray and thin.  And then there’s that.  I don’t want to talk about that.

DC:  You look great!

GL:  Ask Ruth!  She’s the whole barometer for this.  That’s the savage truth.  “You look terrible!”  Yeah, but Demitri says …”

We have a good laugh.

DC:  Do you ever collaborate on pieces?

GL:  Well, we don’t but we talk about absolutely everything, I mean I don’t have a better voice than Ruth, I mean, she’s my muse.  And it goes both ways.   Actually, here’s an interesting story when I first met Ruth I hired her to be my assistant.  She reminded me of my dad.  There was no bullshit, no entertainment, you could bank on it.  You knew what you were getting. No flirtation, just this is what it is.  So we’re working on this painting in Boca Raton, Florida in a gallery and they were making this movie.  We were painting a thirteen-foot circle on the wall of this gallery.  And we were just getting together, getting to know each other, we dug each and I got the movie afterwards.  I watched this movie, now this is two people doing a project, very complex project on the wall.  We never even spoke.  We were so in sync. it was like we’re moving like a German engineered car, everything’s perfect, seamless, no conversation.  So that was interesting for me to see.  We’re pretty good partners that way.  There is a downside to every partnership, there’s no way around it.  ‘Cause I think every person is two people, anyways.  So now you got four people dissecting everything.

DC:  That’s cool.  What else can we talk about?

GL:   The words.  Let me tell you about the words.  I started writing words in – I guess everybody’s going to know my age now – in the mid-seventies cause they’d get in my head.  And I’d, ‘shit, I don’t want those words in my head.’  So, I remember I had two friends in Spain, they said, “We remember you in the seventies, you’d get off the bus and you’d have all these words written all over your arms.”  Because I thought they were important.  Somehow I knew two things; I wanted them out of my head, I didn’t want them in my head.  I got enough – I like to keep my head empty-

DC:  Hmm, empty head?

GL:  Yeah!  That’s the way I like it!

We guffaw!

GL:  I like my head empty, man!  I like my belly full and my head empty!  So, I would write these words down but I never thought they were ART.  I just thought they were sort of, you know, therapy or some sort of mental compulsion, you know, but you ever see the movie, “Simple Minds,” with Russell Crowe?  I looked like that, you know that?  Walkin’ around like that in public.  But I thought the words were important and I thought that collecting words, just like you collect butterflies, money or whatever people collect – art – I just wanted to collect words I just – I like to look at the words and think about them and arrange them in sentences, cause they provide my mind a place to go.  It’s very interesting. Because I don’t paint images, I paint icons, what I consider to be sacred icons, or hypnotic icons.

DC:  That reminds me.  I posted a few of the pictures on Facebook and the responses , you know, you’re hearing from people you haven’t seen in twenty years and the responses, ‘dizzying,’ ‘hypnotic,’ people were really complimentary.

GL:  And they’re looking at an image ‘this big’ and you came in with Mona and you’re standing in front of a 13’ circle with your arms raised –

DC:  People were like, wow!  So, lots of compliments.

GL:  Well, thank you.  You know I’ll get, ‘Is he on drugs?’  I get that all the time.  And I’m used to it.

We laugh again.

GL:  But I’ve had people visit my studio, and they go and take one look and say, “Okay, I’m not goin’ there.”   That’s it.  They walk right out.

DC:  Really?

GL:  Yeah, because you gotta let go.  You gotta let go and you gotta take that ride and if you’re not confident, you’re not going for the ride.  Cause these things will really undo you.

DC:  It’s true!

GL:  People are afraid to jump.  But you gotta jump or you’re not living.  My dad taught me that.  I’d be worried and have lines in my forehead and he’d say, “Gary, jump.  You’ll land on your feet.  And I trusted him.  And I’ve been jumping ever since.  And I’ve landed on some rocks!  Hello! Yeah, this isn’t my…

DC:  First time around the rodeo?

GL:  Yeah, baby!

We laugh as Gary leads me to his art studio.

GL:  The studio is a mess because, as I told you, there are a lot of projects going on.

The studio actually is not a mess but very well organized with lots of projects going on.  I don’t bring people back here but because I adore you, we’re doing this.   This is my part of the studio.

DC:  Well, this is what I like; going into the artist’ mind.  This is where you do your thing.

He shows me marks across the top of the white walls.

GL:  Here, you see that big mark up there, you see what I used to do is literally pull the 13’ circle this way with my brush.  And eventually your shoulders go to hell, so now…

He shows me the 13’ circle canvas that spins on the wall like a giant lazy susan.

GL:  I devised this rotating mechanism.

DC:  Oh, my goodness!

We laugh.

GL: You want me to read you one.  I’m always full of words.  This one is about me just between you and I.  It says, “Filled with hell juice and the mermaids sing – sing, the poet competes with pornography. “  And that’s the truth.  You have your hell juice , you have your sirens, maddening sirens, and you come up with the truth.  Goddamn incredible.

DC:  You stay in here for hours and hours?

GL:  This is my domain, man.  This is my shelter from the storm.  This is where I live and, you know, the floor, it’s like a dance floor.  There are rubber pads underneath, cause I’m standing for hours a day.

And see, I have a mobile library here.

His library includes , Shakespeare, “The Joy of Life,” Marquis de Sade and Shakespeare’s “Poems and Sonnets.”  We move to the outside patio.

GL: …..this is a very special environment and I really love it.

DC:  Let’s see what you listen to.  Do you have a lot of jazz?

GL:  Yeah, actually I’ve got more jazz than anything else.  I don’t’ know what you’re going to see right now.

He opens one of three large file drawers filled with CDs.

GL:  What do you listen to?

DC:  I listen to jazz mostly, especially during creative times.

GL:  Yeah, I listen to jazz.  Jazz frees me, you see.  Lately though I find I only listen to all classical, almost exclusively, but I’ve got more jazz than anything.  You might like this guy, this guy is strange.  Antony and the Johnsons.  Never heard of him, huh?

DC:  No.

GL:  You know, he’s a transgender guy, so the singing is really…. You want to me to play one of his songs?  It ain’t jazz, it’s something else.

DC:  He looks like that girl in the hallway that no one wants to talk to.

GL:  He’s that guy but when he sings.

Gary puts on the CD and invites me to look around at the studio space; the paint, brushes, canvases, prints readied for shipping, and as I listen to the haunting music of Antony and the Johnsons, I feel a great appreciation for the artist and his muse and his creative space.


Gary Lang’s “Circles/Words” is on exhibition at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills.  Ace Gallery is located at 9430 Wilshire Blvd.  For more information visit www.acegallery.net.

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