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Art Review : Paintings That Defy Description

October 01, 1986|ROBERT McDONALD

SAN DIEGO — Gary Lang's paintings are outrageous. They would wake up the dead with their visual cacophony. They have brought violent reactions from visitors to the Mark Quint Gallery with their assault on the eyes and on their preconceptions about what a painting should look like.

If it is true, as Walter Pater wrote in the last century, that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music," then Gary Lang's paintings aspire toward the condition of hard rock.

The artist confided modestly during an interview: "Yeah, looking at them doesn't come easy."

How can inert objects create such a fuss, without even being obscene, violent or sacrilegious?

How does one describe the indescribable? And perhaps unreproducible?

Images and patterns are jammed together on the surface of the canvas in every color available. They do not jostle one another because there is no space for jostling in their visual gridlock.

They do, however, flicker and pulsate. They even seem infinitely expandable. And as you look at them, they seem to change.

"It's just like watching clouds," Lang said.

His congeries on canvas include bananas, strawberries, plums, Minnie Mouse, robots, a monkey's face, an Indian head, Raggedy Ann, cornucopias, a pirate's flag, cucumbers, red parrots, the forehead and one eye of James Dean, parts of words, bunnies, part of the facade of a public building in the Federal style, green onion tops, a blue piano keyboard, a rainbow-colored scarf, a roast turkey metamorphosing into a pink elephant (or vice versa), a nude Snow White (upside down but coquettish) and cave drawings. Then there are glimpses of seascapes, landscapes, "skyscapes" and "urbanscapes." And there are many brightly colored, decorative squares like those that grandmothers knit and assemble for quilts.

Lang's procedure, he said, is "to start out with as much as I can and then add to it."

He wants his surfeited canvases to be "so ambiguous you can bring up your own associations. They're supposed to function personally. They don't say just one thing."

His paintings are like perpetual sense perceptions, simultaneously coming at us from all directions without the intervention of our consciousness to sort them out and order them. Or they're like the ideas and impressions that pester us when we've awakened in the middle of the night and are desperate to fall asleep again.

In their crowdedness and evocativeness, they resemble the works of artists as different from one another as Terry Allen and Manny Farber. In their dense structure, they are as complex as the geometric paintings of Al Held (with whom Lang studied at Yale). In their patterning, they are as rich as the fabric paintings of Lucas Simaras or old-fashioned patchwork quilts.

A curious reversal of traditional procedure, Lang customarily begins with a large canvas, composing improvisationally, then makes a smaller version, refining the essence of the image. Several pairs of works at the Quint Gallery are installed in such a way, although not adjacent to one another, that it is possible for viewers to study them comparatively.

An articulate artist, Lang has summarized his ambition in these works: "I want to push the power of images and of color as far as possible. But what I'm really interested in is the primal energy behind the images. I want to create the look of the rhythm of life."

You may hate Gary Lang's paintings. But you won't forget them or their severe joie de vivre. The exhibit runs through Oct. 11.

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