Art review: Gary Lang at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills


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Endearing is an odd term to describe Gary Lang’s work, which, over the decades, has come across more immediately as bold, busy and chromatically intense. But at their best, Lang’s paintings testify profoundly to individual presence, to the utterly human manifestations of hand and breath. They can, somewhat surprisingly, incite tenderness.

Lang’s first L.A. show in 25 years, at Ace Gallery’s Beverly Hills location, gives occasion to explore both the elasticity and consistency of the artist’s range. Lang (who is also a sculptor) was born in L.A. and attended CalArts before moving east to study at Yale. He has lived on both coasts, and now resides in Ojai. Since the late ’70s, his art has concentrated on pattern, rhythm, repetition, vibrant color and surface energy. He once incorporated found, pop culture imagery into his work but for the last 20 years has pared down his visual vocabulary to the basic elements of line and color.


The show starts on an intimate scale, with a small gallery of paintings of stacked lines and another of grids (he calls them “plaids”), then breaks open with a cavernous gallery of round canvases with concentric circles. Newer work prevails, but a few older pieces are sprinkled into the mix, going as far back as 1990. There are some clumsy pieces here, with unredemptive dissonances and awkward rhythms, but more than a few marvels — ravishing examples of Lang’s humble exuberance.

“Mirror 113” is just such an stunner. The 2008 canvas measures just over 9 feet square. Its network of narrow (about one-quarter-inch) horizontal and vertical stripes veers slightly off course, just enough to assert Lang’s respect for manual imperfection over mechanical efficiency, and to suggest an inviting tapestry rather than a forbidding cage. The lines of color shift from warm to cool, intense to faint, deepening and darkening toward the edges. The painting is a gem of subtle undulation, a dance between openness and enclosure, surface and depth.

The line paintings are similarly involving. They have a private, quiet feeling to them, whether roughly 2-by-4 feet or 8-by-5. Lang lays down one thin horizontal line after another, traversing the canvas in solid, strong colors, the lines a little rough around the edges sometimes, tilting and occasionally overlapping. Again, absolute regularity and evenness count for little. What matters is the simple repetition of the act, driven by the eye and the arm. The line reads as literal and metaphoric at once, a record and a gesture, dense with reference to mark-making of the past but persuasive in its pure immediacy.

Tensions play out vigorously within these paintings: between the discipline of each format and Lang’s lavish freedom with color; between the sobriety of the reductive geometries and the revelry of his idiosyncratic hand; between a yearning for harmony and the impulse toward disorder. The works are surprisingly resonant, emotionally.

The paintings of concentric bands of color are more aggressive and less absorbing. They measure up to 13 feet in diameter (the aptly named “Goliath”) and present a target-like challenge. Illusionistically eye-popping from a distance, the circles vibrate and pulse, their spectrum of colors all-inclusive: luminous, flat, sweet, sharp, Day-Glo, metallic, shrill and sexy. In such a large group (13), the intensity can feel relentless, but there are delicate, gorgeous passages to be found, like the progression of white to yellow to green to blue around the outer rim of “Roam,” rings of stop-start strokes that seem to race each other around the circle. And in “Full Circle,” dark rays painted beneath the rings make the colors flicker and dim, gently interrupting the circular momentum.

Lang’s work positions itself comfortably within the continuum of artists using a similarly distilled vocabulary — Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin, among others. The strength of his work has less to do with invention than interpretation, with the inescapably singular, internal process of making external marks.

-- Leah Ollman

Photo: Gary Lang’s ‘Roam.’ Credit: Ace Gallery.

Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, 9430 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 858-9090, through Aug. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.