The Power of Words and Gary Lang

Painting by Gary Lang, used with permission.Make no mistake, I am no art critic. When I was young my own work in stick figures with pie plate hands drew attention from certain quarters, but after a time even my mother lost interest. These days when I go to an art gallery I may stand for a prolonged period before some masterwork, admiring it from every angle, before pontificating, "That's a really nice picture", and then stepping to my left to draw the same conclusion about the next painting.

There is much artistic talent out there.

I know little about art, but I do know a little something about words, which is why Gary Lang's current exhibition "Edging Reason -- Words" at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard (through May 19) intrigues and fascinates me. It fascinates me because Gary's work and words are nothing short of mesmerizing (and a little neck-cricking). It intrigues me because the words just kind of snuck up on him. Words can do that.

Depressing, inspiring, uplifting, unsettling, erotic. Life-changing.

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Let me explain. My friend Gary is a world renowned artist. He has long been recognized as one of the most distinguished practitioners of colorful hard-edge abstraction, famous for his signature multicolored concentric-circle paintings. I am confident in writing this because I am pilfering it directly from an art critic. Gary has an MFA from Yale and has shown his work in over two hundred exhibits, including exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (La Jolla) and The Hague in the Netherlands. He is, in pie hands art speak, the real deal.

I don't like Gary because he's famous. I like Gary because he's a great dad, and he's funny and he says things that make you think. Although he is very much an artist he is very much himself, which is to say he is unpretentious and honest. He says things like, "I think the truth is fleeting. I don't even buy my own propaganda." At a recent talk about his word paintings, a member of the audience drifted into a meandering artistic diatribe that included comments about the angst and struggle Gary must have experienced in creating his word works. Every artist bleeds. Gary listened attentively and said, "They're very relaxing actually... I'm trying to come up with something that looks a lot like those seeing charts."

Gary takes his art seriously, but his word paintings really do look like seeing eye charts. Only far more colorful. Some are short; some are long. Many are hard to visually decipher. Walking about the Carnegie Art Museum on the exhibition's opening night I saw people who looked as if they were wracked with severe cramps; bent and twisted, they tried to puzzle Gary's words off the canvas.

"They are a challenge," Gary whispered to me. "And I feel bad about that."

One of my favorite Gary Lang word paintings accompanies this article. It is a simple phrase. But, like many simple phrases, it really isn't so simple.

Always Chasing Chance.

Interpret as you wish.

Gary's word paintings -- over 70 paintings currently hanging in the Carnegie Art Museum and reams more tucked about his studio and home as completed works or just scrawled notes -- are filled with phrases that stop you in your tracks; gripping, shocking, bizarre, and beautiful. Some make you glad you're alive. Some make you wish you were dead. Words are powerful. They can make you think.

Here are the words to one of Gary's word paintings called "Rapture."

Byzantine bureaucracies
wheedling minions of the devout and derisive, sleek in wickedness;
armed with erasers and distraction,
racheting up the pressure while methodically undermining
drought weary pilgrims awash in rapture

Another personal favorite of mine is titled "Little and Much."

How little we know
How much we are

Here's the fascinating thing. For most of his life Gary gave little conscious thought to words. Let me be more specific. He barely read. Anything. Until September 11, 2001 he rarely looked at a newspaper. After that dark date he did start reading the paper, but only, he says, "because it seemed like it was important." Curious about poetry he once went to a book store and opened up a poetry book.

"I didn't even have the patience to read through a poem. I thought they would never end." He smiles and shrugs. "I was never a reader. I may even be dyslexic."

Despite this, words crept up on him. While he was painting, words would pop into his head. He would jot them down, mostly to get rid of them. When he paints, he says, "It doesn't work for me to get hung up on thoughts." Gary has been jettisoning words for a long time, some forty years to be exact. The scraps of words and phrases and thoughts started to mass. Still, Gary didn't think much of them.

"I started collecting them because I thought they were interesting and menacing and maybe enlightening," he says. "But I never thought of them as art."

A strange thing happened.

Says Gary, "I started to fall in love with words."

What began as something of a curiosity has now become something of an obsession.

"Now the words have started to become paintings. It's just a compulsion that seems to be tracking me. And I just can't stop doing them." Although his words are often grim, there is no angst, no terrible artiste torment. Gary possesses a young boy's impish smile. "It's actually a real pleasure. There's just no stopping me. I'm working on my own Bible. It's this frenzied game of plugging words and phrases. And finding some meaning for yourself."

It's what words have always done.

A great artist always retains an open mind.

Gary speaks softly, his words laced with the smallest trace of surprise.

"Words are powerful. They make you cry. They give you hope. I didn't realize they were the doors to worlds."

How little we know.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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