Enter into the world of Grace Lang, a place with beasty demons and fiery warriors. You can’t ignore the full-on presence of Grace’s characters. The colours are bold and the explosive energy is engrossing and evocative. After spending many years developing her work, Grace has discovered a surrealist style that is truly unique, it’s clear that Grace is passionate about the work she creates and is deeply thoughtful about her ideas and the narrative. These illustrations are still motion, modern day stories. With a new book ‘Babelon’ currently available, some new 3D art and her upcoming solo show ‘Hellstrong’ opening September 7th at Gallery Fifty24PDX, we wanted to sit down with Grace to chat about all the upcoming events and her life until now in detail!
Looking back on the beginning of your journey into the art world, can you tell us when you first started drawing and painting and what drew you to your current aesthetic?
I have been making art in some form or another for my whole life. My mom used to be a costume designer and the first real drawings I can remember making were actually attempts to recreate her costume sketches. She was the first artist in my life. She still paints and my dad’s an actor, so my interest in art was always encouraged a lot by them and my siblings. I think “being an artist” became a fundamental part of my character, at least within my own family, at a young age and I sort of just went with it. I’ve also always been a big reader, so I think a lot of my earliest inspiration came from fantasy stories and illustrations. I was pretty young when my dad read the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud to me, with different voices for every character, so that got me on the path of imagining strange worlds full of strange creatures. I was also pretty obsessed with Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s 1978 book, “Faeries.” Some of those images are etched into my memory forever.
I studied illustration at Parsons, which gave me good insight into how an artist can straddle the line between paid, commercial work and more fulfilling, personal work. A big part of studying illustration focused on communicating narratives to people through images, which I really took to heart. Even if the narratives in my work are not totally clear, I think most people can at least recognize the presence of a story. At the time, I was looking at a lot of old animation and comics, both of which heavily influenced my style. Grunge and metal music too!
Right after college, I began working at the Cotton Candy Machine, the gallery boutique owned by Tara McPherson and Sean Leonard in Brooklyn, NY. The years I spent there were essential to developing my style and confidence as an artist. Both of them motivated me tremendously to carve out my own space in the art world, while also learning the practical skills associated with running a gallery. Spending so much time around Tara’s work inspired me to focus on female figures. Her women are so strong, yet vulnerable, and I relate to that. The broad scope of her career also validated my hope that I could succeed as an artist without limiting my work to one channel. All of the artists that I gotten to know through CCM reinforced this idea and because of that, I imagine so many exciting possible future paths my career might take. Sean helped me get out of my shell and engage with people more. In terms of developing my aesthetic, I absorbed every image that came through our doors and I’m sure all of it has found its way into my work, whether I realize it or not.
Much of what I understand about myself has come through reflecting on things I’ve already created. I have been keeping sketchbooks for many years and think they are the key to my development as an artist, sort of serving as a timeline of my style’s evolution. Since they aren’t really intended as final art pieces for an audience, I experiment and take chances inside them. At some point after college, I went through finished ones and took notes of all the themes and images that kept popping up. I figured there had to be some way of combining these elements into more than just a style, but a real artistic voice. It was a combination of recognizing what my doodling was unknowingly saying with what I hoped to say, as well as how I wanted to develop my skills as an artist. By looking through images I was making somewhat offhandedly, I was able to identify the concepts that were already present or at least trying to leak through. This was great because I realized that I had the foundation of a visual language before I even began asking myself what I was trying to say.
You are currently preparing for your upcoming solo show Hellstrong at Gallery Fifty24PDX, could you tell us about how you begin preparation for a solo, and a little about the theme you a working with?
Whenever I begin a new body of work, I brainstorm with words, which leads to little narratives I want to explore. The word “hellstrong” came to me a couple years ago and I took it to mean the very distinct type of toughness one can develop after returning from a personal hell. It felt like an extension of the concepts I was already working with: overcoming dark internal forces, allowing our insides to manifest externally, the inherent strength of women, etc. I kept the word in the back of my head, waiting for the right time to use it. Right when I began preparing for the show, I had a bit of a breakdown regarding my chronic back pain—something I’ve dealt with since my spinal fusion surgery 12 years ago. We were finally able to diagnose the complications and since then, my energy has been split between preparing for this show and treating these conditions in order to find a new harmony with my body.
It’s pushed me to learn more about my anatomy and talk more openly with friends about their own ailments, prompting some therapeutic images. In the past, most of my imagery has appeared almost subconsciously, with the meaning revealing itself to me slowly. For some of the work in this show, I’m taking a different approach, very consciously trying to depict the frustration I feel about having a body that hurts. There are a few specific images that came directly out of this idea, most notably the disembodied heads. To me, the babe heads represent a woman who, stuck with a body that has failed her, evolves past needing anything other than her head. Her mind is enough. When I am stuck in my pain, I feel like my body is useless or worse, that it’s working against me. I fantasize about what my life would be like if I could have my mind without a body to hold me back. That is when I draw the disembodied heads. A few weeks ago, my neck and shoulder were flaring up like crazy, so I very intentionally drew myself with my neck and shoulders removed. While all my babes are pieces of me, I never approach them as self-portraits, so this specific drawing felt very cathartic. A lot of the creatures or buddies that hang out with the babes tend to represent the people in my life who have helped me deal. The symbols, which I call my glyphs, express the incommunicable nature of pain, the failings of language to express certain things.
I think most of the work in Hellstrong is not visually much different from my previous work; I am just looking at it in a different way. Up until recently, I believed that all the wounds and cuts in my work were representative of internal pain, but now I can acknowledge that they also represent exactly what they are—proof of physical pain. Each of the drawings, paintings and sculptures are sort of a nod to anybody out there who feels held back by their body.
Hellstrong opens September 7th at Gallery Fifty24PDX /Upper Playground in Portland, Oregon. This will be my biggest show yet and first on the West Coast! Here’s some of the new works for the exhibition.
You released a new book in March called BABELON, can you tell us about the book and what the experience was like creating it? We would love a little sneak peek inside too!
I created BABELON with one of my oldest friends, Simon Lazarus Vasta and we released it this spring at the LA Art Book Fair. Simon wrote the words and I did the drawings. It is 32 pages, printed in black and white with a double-sided slipcover, printed in neon on black paper. The book’s creation was a true give-and-take effort, with some images preceding their titles and some titles preceding their images. By working together this way, we were each able to experience both sides of the collaboration. Words inspired images and vice versa. I also think it’s important to note that Simon and I met via Myspace over 10 years ago, so BABELON is a direct product of the good ol’ internet!
For me, it was a really fun undertaking because it involved so much drawing. I decided early on to do all the work with ballpoint pen because I just love the effects I can get with such a basic material. I spent years doodling in notebooks during dull classes, so I feel really comfortable with pen. The project also pushed me to pursue more intricate compositions. Drawing structures and space doesn’t come naturally to me, so for some of them I created reference collages in Photoshop. I am definitely going to use that technique more in the future.
While there isn’t a definitive narrative, the drawings, as a collection, insinuate a surrealist tale of female rebellion and triumph. The basic concept was to create a world full of powerful, wounded, warrior babes and their comrades. There are struggles and victories, but nothing is explicitly spelled out. We were inspired by the format of Goya’s Los Caprichos, which is a collection of etchings with figure titles. Rather than just serving as a description of the image, the figure titles prompt the reader to investigate the drawings and form their own narratives within the larger story.
Sneak Peek inside Babelon!
I love the colours you use in your work and I know how important it is to you that the colour is exactly as you envision it. What is your process like when choosing the content and palette of each piece?
I love color, but actually do not feel entirely confident with my skills. I second-guess a lot of the choices I make and often change colors throughout a piece’s creation. I’ll visualize the image with one color and then halfway through, decide it doesn’t work with another color I am using and I end up painting over stuff and wasting time. I want to improve on that, so am trying to think out all the colors I want to use beforehand. I think for a while I was relying on neons for their inherent “look at me!” factor, so I am trying to push past that a little. Rather than trying to use all the neon I possibly can, I’m trying to refine the palette for each piece and use those colors more deliberately. I sometimes need to remind myself not to try to explore every single idea at once and the same thing goes for my color choices. Just because I love a color, doesn’t mean I need to use it everywhere. Sometimes I even “hide” the rest of my paint after settling on a palette.
I saw some amazing sculptures on your page recently; you mentioned they had been in progress for some time! Is 3D art something you want to move into, will we be seeing more sculptures from you in the future?
Yes! I am currently finishing a collection of sculptures that I began a year ago during my residency in Beijing. I’d put them aside in order to focus on other projects, but now with my show coming up, finishing them is a big priority. I really love sculpting. It’s so tactile. I feel like anybody who has ever messed around with Play Doh can attest to the fact that squishing something between your fingers just feels good. It’s strangely meditative. I think because I still consider myself an amateur sculptor, I give myself more allowances than with painting or drawing. I mess up a lot, but I try to just roll with it and let the mistakes carry me in a new direction. Right now, I am painting the sculptures and it feels like they are truly coming to life. This painting phase is fun because the sculpture’s texture dictates what the paint will do and I’ve ended up with some cool, unexpected results. I absolutely want to continue working with sculpture and eventually go BIG. A large-scale installation would be a dream, maybe cast in bronze or something.
What is your biggest motivator to paint? We would love a glimpse behind your process and your studio and your daily life as a full time artist!
My biggest motivator to paint or create anything is that it’s the surest way I know to make myself feel good about myself. It’s how I make sense of the world and my feelings. When I am in the studio, I feel like I have the best control over my own mind, allowing the right thoughts to come forward and pushing the useless ones back. That doesn’t just mean good feelings vs. bad feelings though. Often the negative thoughts are the ones I push forward most when I am working. That way, I can use them productively. If I’m not doing something, I tend to get lost in my own head and the deeper I go, the harder it is to climb out. That’s why I try to be consistent and make myself work even on days when I don’t want to. When I’m focused on a project, I can channel the best and worst emotions into something tangible, which ends up contributing a lot to my sense of self.
Ten quick questions… GO!
Favourite colour to paint with?
Black! Lately I have been using a lot of red too.
What is your favourite quote?
“But everything that may someday be possible for many people, the solitary man can now, already, prepare and build with his own hands, which make fewer mistakes. Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain in causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again. -Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I haven’t eaten anything all that crazy but I once ate 17 cocktail shrimp at a fancy party!
Who’s your favourite artist?
What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the last month?
I bought a little house!
Have 1 wish granted, what would it be?
I’d like to speak and understand all languages.
Three people living or dead you would want to have a dinner party with?
What the coolest gift you ever received?
I’ve been given some really cool antique weapons. The mace is probably the best one.
What’s your favourite hobby?
I love to read.