Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Highlighter enthusiast Grace Lang is an exciting new mixed media Illustrator making her mark in Brooklyn. With her foot in the door to the art world, Grace is an integral player at Tara McPherson’s Cotton Candy Machine, manning the gallery’s sales and social media. Her neon beasts and babes reflect her 1990s childhood and overcoming personal struggles. Check out what I had to talk about with this double-major, triple-threat new on the scene.
SHANON WELTMAN: Can you name some of your favorite materials, techniques and colors to work with?
GRACE LANG: In terms of color, I really like neon. I’ve been really attracted to that. I was doing a lot more drawing in college than I was painting. I’ve been painting a lot lately, but I didn’t paint at all in college really. I was looking at it academically and couldn’t really wrap my mind around it really. I can’t really paint from observation and I couldn’t allow myself to see my drawings becoming paintings. I got really stuck, and into using highlighters. The summer after I graduated, which is last summer, I went to the art supply store and bought a lot of UV dayglo acrylic paint and started painting with it. I was like, ‘oh, my drawings can become paintings, they’re not actually these totally separate mediums. They inform one another.’ At the end of college I did one big project which was sculpture based, which was a 3D moshpit on the back of a skate deck. When it came time for Tiny Trifecta this year I was like ‘I want to get back into sculpture.’ It was my first time being in a show ever, so I wanted to really wow everybody. I’d been drawing these girls with beasts for awhile, didn’t feel like doing paintings for whatever reason. I wanted to turn a drawing into a sculpture pretty much. I wouldn’t say I’d ever be an artist that works in one thing, but I really like pen. I love black lines and outlines, but I had so much fun doing clay that I think I’m going to really explore that more and explore bigger things.
SW: You mentioned to me the other day it was a special kind of clay, what is it?
GL: Yeah, I just found it at the art supply store, lightweight stone clay. Just the way it dries… Do you know Crayola Magic Mold? That stuff you used when you were a kid.
SW: Model Magic?
GL: Model Magic! That’s what it is.
SW: Yeah I use that with my students.
GL: I got into that because it was so cheap and fun to mess with, the only thing is it dries so light that it’s not really an art object, you know? I think, also, it doesn’t harden completely or something, so I wanted something like that. So I went to the store, looked at the clay and found something self-drying, but it was made of stone. When it dries it’s awesome, it’s like really unsmooth porcelain, but you can sand it, carve it, paint it and it adheres to itself. I did a face and then I did a bit of the beast and then I would paint that and add more clay, it’s really good stuff. Premier, I think it’s called, something kind of random.
SW: How long did it take you to work on those? Specifically those sculptures.
GL: I started five just to make sure three were done really good. It took about a month and half I think. It was my first time doing anything like that and I did work very hard on them. It took a long time, I think I’m going to start doing it more and more. Like I have the other two that I started, I’m going to finish those and see if I can get into doing it really quickly. Then I can sell them all the time. Since I got such a good response from it, I would like to make a ton of them. Maybe cover a wall with them or something, have them be like spoils of war, I don’t know. Your trophy room of all these demon-like warrior women. [Laughs]
SW: What are your biggest inspirations? They don’t have to be related to art.
GL: I generally think that pretty much everything is inspiration. Everything informs how you look at things. I also studied literature in college, so like, books, narratives and stories influence me a lot. Music, I’m not a musician but I love music and a lot of the imagery associated with punk music or metal music really inspires me a lot. I like morbid imagery but I’m also really inspired by the cartoons I watched growing up. Like Ren & Stimpy, all that stuff with really gross aesthetics.
SW: Are you a 90’s baby or 80’s baby?
GL: 90’s, I was born in 1990. So yeah, cartoons, like Hey Arnold, and stuff, I think influenced me a lot. The fact that I like doing made up things, and things that don’t necessarily look like they’re copied from life. Like, I was never interested in drawing realistically. Another thing that probably plays a big role in my work in ways that I can see and can’t always see: I had a big spine surgery when I was 15, I had to have my spine fused. Which was really awesome and amazing, it fixed my crooked spine but also was a really specific age to go through a big traumatic bodily event. It kind of changed the way I looked at everything and the way I looked at myself. I think that’s when I started drawing cut up people and amputated people, goo spilling out of people. I just got very preoccupied with people’s relationships with their bodies and what that means. It slowly got funnier, I think. I eventually realized everyone has a lot of shit and has times when they hate themselves and hate certain things about themselves physically. The only way to deal with it is to be kind of funny about it. I wouldn’t say my work is funny, but it does, I think, have a light-hearted nature to it. Even though in a certain way in my head it’s coming from a serious place, it’s like ‘we’ve all been through this, look at how silly it is.’ If that makes sense.
SW: Yeah it does. How old did you say you were when that happened?
GL: 15. I had really bad scoliosis, my spine was the shape of an S. I wore a back brace for awhile and it didn’t correct the problem, so I had to have my spine fused with metal which was crazy awesome. In September it will be 9 years, and so it’s probably one of the most formative experiences of my life. It changed me from that point on. It was also this thing where I was being fixed, but healing from a big surgery, you feel broken. It was a weird place. Medicinally I was being fixed and they’ve solved this problem, but I felt so different and in pain. After healing things were different, but it definitely changed the way I look at everything, I think. I’m obviously thankful for it, it’s just very formative. A form of trauma, 15 for a girl is especially a really tender age. [Laughs] It’s something that’s really important to me even 9 years later. It’s always coming up in different ways in my work, in the way I relate to people all that kind of stuff.
SW: You kind of answered this next question. What are the main concepts and imagery you focus on? You mentioned influence from bands and then the experience you had. Say like in the scale you draw, there’s so many details. What really– not inspires– but…? Maybe you already answered that. [Laughs]
GL: Well when you told me you were going to interview me I was really trying to think, ‘How do I talk about my work?’ They make you do that in college, but I think my work has grown a lot since then, though it’s only been about a year. I think in terms of subject matter it’s a lot of demons, warriors. In the past couple months actually, since I started working at Cotton Candy Machine, being in front of Tara McPherson‘s work all the time, I was like ‘Oh! Girls. I want to paint girls and, like, badass girls doing badass things.’ That’s sort of where I started doing girls with headdresses, girls inside of beasts mouths. I realized about a year ago, I was doing pictures of mosh pits and people in the process of fighting. Lately I’ve been doing these people who have come out victorious, these post traumatic warriors who have gone through some shit and come through victorious, but not so much so to the point that they don’t have those scars. They have, like, the head of an animal or, like, I did paintings with these guys that have goo attached to their armor. The idea is all the things that you slay, even your demons that you have, you don’t get rid of them, they just become part of your armor. Or they happen to become part of, like, the opposite of armor, they don’t protect you, they destroy you. I like to think that all those things, people’s demons, can become part of their armor, making them more awesome. The best people in the world have demons, pretty much. I think that’s where that comes from. I’m still working it out, why I draw what I draw, but I think it has to do with that, wanting to feel triumphant over outside forces.
SW: Have you ever heard of the Native American medicine wheel?
GL: No, what is that?
SW: It’s like loosely what you’re talking about. Very loosely. It’s essentially like, different tribes would have these ceremonies around solstices and equinoxes and they would be on these plateaus and they’d form these rocks, basically forming the zodiac wheel. They had their own version of the zodiac, but instead of calling it that, they would call it this medicine wheel. So you do these small sacrifices, cutting yourself, etc that kind of stuff. The whole idea behind it was you were receiving the powers of all the other spirits in the medicine wheel, [for example] gaining the fastness of an Elk.
GL: I’ll totally Google that [Laughs], maybe go further and read a book about it. Google goes first.
SW: I’ve only found texts on it that are kind of new-agey, but I know it was happening back before the new age movement. So I guess, you know, Google it, look at your sources… [Laughs]
GL: [Laughs] Alright, cool. I love the idea of getting the attributes of animals. It was a really sad day when I was little and realized that I would never, no matter how hard I tried, have the abilities to talk to animals. That’s just never going to happen. It sucks. [Laughs] It’d be so perfect.
SW: You just need to hit your head, get a concussion… you know. [Laughs]
GL: I’ll work on it. [Laughs] Maybe animals are always saying really stupid shit all the time, I don’t know.
SW: My cat is, that’s for sure.
GL: I think my cat is too, she’s just walking around like ‘look at my butt’ to everyone. Little slut. [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] So going back a second, away from our slutty cats… How did you get involved with the Cotton Candy Machine?
GL: Through Lyejm, who has worked there for a really long time. He worked there from the very beginning pretty much. I went to school with him, we’ve just always been friends. I’d hear him talk about it and it just seemed really interesting. Last summer I’d just graduated, I was just like ‘Do you guys need help?’ They were in a transition period where they were renovating the space, getting a lot bigger, expanding. I went and talked to Sean [Leonard] and I think that he could see that I was inexperienced in retail, fresh out of school. I think he just saw that I was super enthusiastic and excited about what the place stood for. So I started helping out as they renovated. I helped out by painting and preparing for the grand re-opening. Then I think when comic-con rolled around I worked really hard and tried to, like, prove my worth to them. At that point it kind of solidified me as a member of the team. Then I just started working there and it’s been the best ever. I can’t say enough nice things about it. It’s just done so much for my life.
SW: What do you do there? You do a lot of things.
GL: I guess I’m an assistant? Sort of like Lyejm is. Usually handling orders, we have a big web store. Preparing for shows, cataloging stuff that comes in, taking care of art, sending stuff out, receiving art. Also, just managing the shop from a retail point of view. Having people come in and being able to tell them about the different artists and all of that. Openings, you know, are a whole different thing. I just do everything that needs to be done pretty much, just to help Sean have the best business he could possibly have. Some of it is inventory and working the shop, other stuff is awesome and exciting like hanging the walls, curating which sculptures go where. All of that, it’s a really practical job and really inspiring job at the same time. I think that’s why I love it so much.
SW: What was it like the first time, holding an original of someone that you’ve heard of? What is that feeling like?
GL: It’s insane, and it still is. Especially with the Tiny Trifecta, I was sitting at the desk and the FedEx guy came in and handed me a little envelope, I look at the return address, it’s Mark Ryden. I’m just like, ‘What?? I’m not worthy of this.’ It’s really cool. It reminds you that these superstars are people. Tara too, even though I know her now, she’s still like this magical art being to me. Now I’m up close seeing the things she makes. Maybe you would think seeing things up close makes it so you can see the mistakes in something like that but that’s what art is. Seeing these beautiful art objects up close just makes them more impressive and makes you love the artists more. It’s also really cool to be trusted with something like that, especially when we have shows with some of my favorite artists. Like, David Cook I really love, having a show with Skinner who is probably my favorite right now and I can’t wait to just look at it. My Dad got me a piece from the David Cook show. I was looking at it for two weeks. I was just in the back, ‘You’re going to be mine. You’re going to be mine.’
GL: It’s a really cool thing to be able to do. So yeah, especially the Tiny Trifecta, because it’s art from some of the biggest names ever. It’s totally inspiring, confidence boosting. It’s cool to be trusted with people’s babies. You know, you make art, it’s like someone sending that to you is a big deal, it matters. You have to respect it. The fact that I’m an artist makes me try to respect it more because I know how I would feel if something of mine was mishandled.
SW: Do you think David Cook would be the artist you were most excited about? Is there anyone else since you’ve been working there?
GL: I’ve been really stoked about Dima since I’ve gotten to know him. He comes to so many of our events, Dima Drjuchin. He graduated from Parsons exactly 10 years before I did, so he’s sort of one of my markers for where I want to go and the type of artist I want to be. He’s a fantastic artist, he’s always pushing himself, but he treats young artists like me like a peer. Which is really cool! I was really worried when I came out of art school. I’ve prepared for artists to just be like, ‘No. You don’t know anything, you’re young blah blah blah’, but I’ve encountered the exact opposite. Every artist that we have worked with has been so kind and really treated me like another artist, even though I’m just a shop girl too. I think I have nice things to say about all of the artists we’ve worked with.
SW: This one you don’t have to really go in-depth, I’m just curious about your two bachelors degrees. Did you do one after the other?
GL: I did a unique program called BAFA at the New School where you apply for this program, you have to get into Parsons and Eugene Lang, which is a Liberal Art school at the New School. I got into that, it’s a five year program where the whole time you’re earning two degrees. So for five years you just take a couple more credits than everyone else and you end up getting a BFA and a BA. A lot of people drop out of it because they think it’s really difficult to train your brain in two different directions at once. The people who drop out, it maybe just wasn’t for them and wasn’t what they wanted. I totally feel that, but for me, I always really liked academics. So, that was important to me, to keep that. I think that really informed my work, made me better at articulating things about my work and articulating how I felt about other people’s work, it also just inspired me all the time. It’s a literature degree, so I was just reading a lot. Learning about innovations in language and shit like that, that totally just affected the way I looked at my work and everyone else’s work. Also, it gave me a release, making art is hard. It can be a weird, lonely, terrible place and overwhelming. Having an academic space in my life, it was crazy because it was difficult, but I think it in the end was really positive. It makes me feel really cool afterwards. [Laughs]
SW: It is, and what you said is really insightful about being able to talk about your own work and other people’s work. That’s a part about being an artist that people don’t really think about. They become the stereotype of an artist, not being able to talk about themselves. In the business world that doesn’t cut it. You have to be able to talk about your work, even if it’s just, ‘I like to draw monsters’.
GL: Yeah, and it’s important to think about those things. They definitely force you to think about it in art school and to talk about it, but I think maybe just in the fact that I wrote essays on books a lot, it became easier for me to say exactly what I wanted to say about my work or someone else’s work. I think it gave me an advantage. I couldn’t imagine having done it any other way. I think that if I didn’t in art school, I would’ve driven myself pretty crazy.
SW: Yeah, you do go a little nuts… it sounds like such a smart plan having that balance.
GL: Totally, it’s weird when you’re in a place where everyone is an artist. That’s not the way the world is, you forget. Everyone is amazing and creative and wonderful, you forget that to the rest of the world what you’re doing is cool or maybe not cool, interesting and out of the ordinary. I remember one of the first days of my classes, my new teacher freshman year was like, ‘How many of you were the best artists in your high school class?’ And everyone raises their hand. It was just like [Laughs] now you see, this is going to be different. It’s amazing, but it can be so overwhelming. It was nice to have classes that weren’t just to remind myself that not everyone is an artist, pretty much. Especially in places like NY, you can always assume someone is an artist.
SW: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s a pretty safe assumption. I’ve got one more question, totally unrelated to anything else. What is your favorite B-movie?
GL: Well, I really loved “The Room”, that classic awful movie. Last year we watched a movie called “Thankskilling” that I really enjoyed.
GL: It was just about a fucking turkey that killed people, and he kept making turkey puns! [Laughs] That was maybe one of the best things I’ve seen.
SW: I’m so glad you just named that, just on a personal note, Ray and I were broken up for a period and that was the movie we watched when we rekindled our love.
GL: [Laughs] That’s so romantic! ‘It’s Thankskilling!!’ [Laughs] Oh my god, I only watched it once but I could watch it again. My roommates are like, ‘we don’t need to see that again.’ No, we do! It was amazing.
SW: The best part is the beginning with the lady just running around with just her top off.
GL: Totally! She’s not that hot, you don’t know what’s going on or why she’s naked, and then that beautiful evil puppet comes out, it’s just like magic.