“How did he get his name?” I ask while assessing the dog’s disproportionately rotund stature. “I don’t know. It just happened. It suits him, right?” Lang turns to fondly appraise his pooch.
The last few years have seen Lang’s work evolve in a way that few have been privy to observe. Lang admits that he has been content in keeping his hand close, catering to collectors and private buyers, and working towards an exhibition that will see him show between 40 and 50 works at Damien Hirst’s new London gallery next year.
Originally from New Jersey, Lang embodies a brand of East Coast hardness that is indefinably alluring to a sunny Californian eye. After high school, instead of attending art school, Lang took a job in a tattoo parlor, the style of which has stuck with him throughout his career, “It’s a super big part of American culture, especially the classic tattoo flashes. There’s only a certain amount of subject matter and images that were ever used in the tattoos, so they were an easy way for people to express a sentiment or a feeling about something and kind of define themselves.” Around that time he also acquired a job at the Guggenheim installing paintings, an experience that taught him an important lesson, “There were a lot of kids who were really great artists, and some of them were not kids. They were in their 40s or 50s and they were kind of bitter and pissed that they hadn’t ‘made it’ or whatever. I listened to that stuff and listened to what they were saying and did everything in my power to act exactly the opposite.”
When I broach the matter of his work being controversial—he once had two pieces pulled from Deitch Projects back in 2007 due to the content being deemed racially offensive, the piece in question featured century-old African-American stereotypes—Lang is quick to brush it off, “There is absolutely zero controversy based on what I do. Zero. It’s the opposite of my intentions.”
The press release for the Deitch show forewarned, “Wes Lang’s monsters come from the cultural detritus of a very fucked-up America. He takes images pushed under the cultural carpet and forces them back into view to be countenanced.” Lang, however, claims that his reputation for provocation might just have a place in the past. “We’re almost ten years later. I’m a 42-year-old man now. It was just a different time and I think we’re allowed to evolve and change as people, and art should be able to do that.”
If the goal of an artist is to continue making work and to be able to live off of that work, Lang is one of the most successful artists in the country. Although he has not shown in a gallery since early 2014, Lang has been prolific in his recent collaborations which include a custom Rolex for Bamford Watch Department, Kanye West’s Yeezus tour merchandise, and various projects for the Grateful Dead—next year will see a Vans collaboration.
“I’ve worked with all these different companies—bands, brands, whatever—and they’re all things that I’ve been interested in since I was young. And somehow, some way, these projects just come to me.”
As we close out our conversation, I bring up the age-old quarrel between New York and Los Angeles—Lang having lived in both and currently residing in latter, seems to have made his choice for the foreseeable future.
“I haven’t been [to New York City] this year. My parents live in New Jersey, in the house I grew up in. Christmas was the last time I was [there, and] I drove to New Jersey and back.” So it seems his old residence doesn’t occupy any sort of spiritual home for him anymore. He concurs, “No, I love that city. I love it. It’s just—I needed a break from it. I’m not going to say I’ll never live there again, [but] right now California is where I like to be. I mean, look at this shit: It’s incredible.”
Photographer: Louis Canadas at louiscanadas.com.