As goofy as it may sound, a beam of light is what initially brought my attention to the work of Grace Lang. I’d just entered a show at the Convent here in Philadelphia that I didn’t know much about, and as I began circling I was hit by a glare that was caused by two lights covering just next to a painting. Me being me, I saw something shiny so I followed it and that’s when I was brought face to face with the electrifying characters of Grace Lang’s paintings. Instantly I was hooked on her work as her bold, illustrative style created an immersive atmosphere and narrative. Her characters are warriors and their battles a representative of the battles we all face in life so the imagery becomes relatable on top of just being fun to look at. Heavy line work is the driving force behind her illustrative style and her pieces without color are often scenes of immense detail with complex character hierarchies, narrative, and atmospheric elements. Her brightly colored paintings are often simpler overall, but the single or small groups of characters are all deliberately detailed to give them a story. Lang’s illustrations and paintings have incredible pop both visually and narratively.
Another element of Lang’s work that really stood out to me was her ability to translate her characters to sculpture. Artists with such heavily illustrative styles don’t tend to transition into sculpture and if they do their styles don’t often translate smoothly. But Lang’s sculptures tell just as much and feature all of the same details of her illustrations which adds another exciting layer to her body of work. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences in a character when it goes from a boldly outlined illustration to a sculpture.
Since that show I’ve become a huge fan of Lang’s and I was psyched to get to talk to her about her work, her process, and how her unique style developed. She gave a lot of awesome answers and insight into her work. She provides a lot of context to the personal reflection that goes into her work and makes it all the more relatable. Enjoy!
1. I always open with background, so what got you started in art? Schooling? Big Inspirations? What helped shape you into the artist that you are today?
“Being an artist” has been part of my identity for as long as I can remember and it is something that the people around me have always nourished. In the beginning, I made art just to entertain myself. As I got older, I started using it as a way to make sense of thoughts and feelings that didn’t make any sense to me. It gave me a place to put all the weird bits of myself. In terms of schooling, I took art classes throughout my childhood and then studied illustration at Parsons. Reading has always been a massive part of my life too, so I also have a degree in literary studies from Lang College at the New School. Stories are very important to me. Reading has probably informed the expansion of my imagination more than anything. I think the biggest force that has shaped me into the artist that I am today is the unwavering support of my family and friends. I have never been made to feel that I should be spending my time any differently, so that’s given me confidence and space to develop.
2. You've got a very distinct imagery that you've described as tales of triumph built from reflections of personal demons and struggles. How did you start to transition this personal reflection into image? You've been open about your musical inspirations and if you'd like to expand on that we'd love to hear, but were there any image specific inspirations in developing your style?
For most of my life, I enjoyed doodling and brainstorming immensely. I rarely loved any polished “final” piece more than the sketches that lead to its creation. I eventually realized that what I was reacting to was the forced nature of the polished work versus the authentic brain-spill that lived within my sketchbooks. When I was studying literature and the concept of close reading in college, I decided to start close reading my sketchbooks and highlighting important themes. I made notes of the repeating icons and words and then began using them to create a real visual language. I realized that if an image was coming up repeatedly in my offhand sketching, it must be important. Anything my brain felt preoccupied with became part of the language’s foundation. Much of this had to do with altered bodies, scars, the expulsion of goo and various demons. Over time, I’ve interpreted what all these things mean to me and why, at certain periods of my life, I need to manifest certain ones over and over again. It’s like getting a demon out. You just need to draw it until it stops plaguing your mind. Regarding inspiration, I don’t think my musical inspirations are super unique… I like metal, grunge and early 2o00’s emo jams. I alternate between listening to music that makes me feel tough and music that makes me feel vulnerable. Image-wise, I think the illustrated fantasy books I grew up reading made the biggest impact. I still struggle to draw a babe that does not have pointed ears and that is certainly due to the amount of faerie material I consumed as a child. 90’s cartoons too. The continual desire to retreat into my imagination is definitely a product of television and books. I was never particularly interested in drawing from life. I prefer to try and visualize things that have not been visualized before. It can feel sort of like an adventure.
3. Keeping on the subject of your style, how did you build and develop the hard-lined illustrative style that you use in your work? With such varied line weights are things meticulously refined as you go? Are your lines done in pen or a brush? Does the medium you prefer for your line work aid your ability to vary line weight as much as you do?
The hard-lined style is absolutely a product of ballpoint doodling during classes for my entire life. Even classes I enjoyed involved doodling. I was always able to absorb the lesson better if my hand was occupied with shading and outlining. Even though it’s a super cheap medium, you can achieve a lot of different effects with a ballpoint pen. Obsessively experimenting while I was doodling showed me the visual importance of line variation and now, no matter what material I am using, it is an integral part of my style. The tightness of the lines definitely depends on the medium though. My lines tend to be cleaner when I am painting or using brush pens. Super clean lines do not come entirely naturally to me though, so there is plenty of refining as I go. Sometimes, the line weight variation is actually due to me making a line super messy and then thickening it up in order to make it appear cleaner. I don’t know why I have it in my head to make my lines appear clean though when it doesn’t always feel natural. My sketches are often quite messy. I want to bring some messiness into my final pieces, but it can be tough to change things up when you have become so comfortable working a certain way.
4. Your work also features an incredibly bold color palette, heavy contrast and a lot of pop! What insights to color in your work? Are your colors planned out before you start a piece or are they a reflection of the process? What do you think the colors you use add to the narrative of your works?
I honestly feel like I don’t have a great comprehension of color. I know that I like using it and experiencing it, but in contrast to how I see my use of certain imagery, it isn’t a part of my visual universe that I can explain to my own satisfaction. I do try to plan colors out beforehand. It is something I am doing more and more these days, now that I have an ipad and can so easily take a photo of a work in progress and mess around with it digitally. In terms of how my palette adds to the narrative, I think it helps distinguish the work as a representation of fantasy rather than real life. Also, even though much of my subject matter is “dark,” I do not want my work to be upsetting. The world is upsetting enough. Color tends to make people feel good, myself included, so I think I use it for the simple reason that I genuinely enjoy mixing up a pleasing shade and using it to bring one of my babes to life.
5. Speaking more to your process, how do your works (specifically paintings and illustrations) develop? Are things planned out to a T or do you organically build out the pieces as you go? Does the drawing or design process differ when you're creating an entire scene as opposed to just a standalone character or characters?
The form and medium both dictate how much planning goes into any given piece. With a simple character drawing, I don’t need to plan much at all, unless I’m trying to capture a new pose. For the maximalist style scenes, I sometimes make Photoshop collage references. I often sketch out the general shapes I want to create the entire composition, but then improvise as I fill in those shapes with figures. I do really like to leave space for improvisation because that keeps the process exciting for me. That said, there are certainly times when I want to know exactly what I am doing every single step of the way. That is when I plan things out very strategically. This kind of approach is especially helpful if I am feeling anxious and need to exert some control over my world.
6. It's rare that someone with such a heavily illustrative style transitions that style into sculpture as effectively as you do. So what inspired you to want to sculpt in your style? Is your sculpture an expansion of your illustration process or is it something totally different? What do you think the sculptural element adds to the narrative of your work?
I think I began experimenting with sculpture because of my love for little objects. I like things that you can hold and turn over in your hand. The experience of sculpture is so incredibly different from working with any two-dimensional media. It’s tactile and messy. I am always looking for ways to expand my visual universe, so sculpture just felt like a natural evolution. It helped me see my figures differently. Before I began making three-dimensional work, I had only really depicted my babes from the front. I didn’t know how they looked in profile. Then I sculpted one and by looking at her from the side, I was able to better understand how I might draw or paint my babes from new angles. My 3-d work is absolutely an expansion of my illustration process. Sometimes it is planned and sometimes it isn’t. Since I don’t have access to a kiln, I use air-dry clay, but I’d really like to learn how to work with porcelain at some point. As far as adding to the narratives in my work goes, I think sculptures provide a way to see my creatures out of their native habitats and within yours.
7. We've hinted at narrative a couple of times, and I'm very interested in hearing a little more detail on it. You've said before that you don't necessarily have recurring characters but recurring styles of characters, so what are some of these styles? What do these characters represent? Are all of your works in some way a reflection of yourself or an overarching theme of badass ladies conquering and interacting with demons?
All of my babes are, in some form or another, a reflection of myself. Sometimes they represent idealized versions of me exhibiting power and strength. Other times, they might be representing more vulnerable sides of my personality. Human beings are warriors and we all have battles to fight. So, my figures are explicit representations of the unseen struggles within all of us. Everything I make is a physical manifestation of my deepest feelings, which are both frightening and empowering. I don’t have totally defined distinctions between what each type of character represents, but I do have some guidelines. The floating head represents a being that has evolved past the need for a body. The mind is enough. This was born out of my experience with chronic spine pain and the occasional desire to leave my body behind. There are also the beings whose heads appear severed, but still float just above the body. These are earthly warriors who have also evolved past needing their full forms, but choose to remain close to their bodies in case they are needed. This is sort of a reference to all the people out there that could easily isolate themselves from the world, but make the conscious choice to remain and be useful to others. Some figures have pupils and some don’t because there are different types of sight necessary for different situations. Some are more human-like than others because that’s just how humans are. The open wound is many things- sometimes a portal of sorts—both ingesting and expelling lifelines between beings. Other times it’s physical proof of lived pain. Some wounds are left open, maybe as an invitation for communication, while others are stapled shut, intended to heal, but never disappear entirely. The glyph symbols are also a response to this. They represent everything that goes beyond words…everything we want desperately to communicate, but simply cannot say.
8. What is your process like when transitioning your work into print or products? Are works done specifically to be altered in print or made into a pin/patch or do you take works that you've already done and transition them? If works are made specifically for a product, does the design process change at all?
I alternate approaches to creating products. For prints and zines, I use work that I have already created. For pins and patches, I usually draw something specific for that purpose. I make sure to keep in mind how small the actual product will be. There’s no sense trying to have a crazy level of detail in something that will take up an inch of space. But it’s hard. I love lines, so it is tough for me to be satisfied with simplified images. For the apparel in my threadless shop, I adapt images I have already created, usually removing the background or maybe adding a bit of color. These days, I am really into print-on-demand products, like from threadless, as it eliminates the need for artists to know how many of any given size to create. Plus, you aren’t sitting on a bunch of products!
9. You've made several zines and also collaborated with Simon Lazarus Vasta to create a book. What do the collections of images in your zines represent that single images can't or don't portray as strongly? What were the image and narrative differences between your zines and your book? How did the collaborative process of making the book alter these aspects?
My few zines are just collections of disconnected paintings, drawings and pages from my sketchbooks. They are sort of just representations of certain periods in my life and art. Babelon, the book I created with my friend Simon, was more deliberately planned. Each page was created specifically for the book and done in the same medium. Ballpoint pen! The experience was lovely because of the way we decided to collaborate on its creation, with some images preceding their titles and some titles preceding their images. I love words so much and think Simon did an excellent job creating figure titles that give some context, but also invite independent interpretation. That was sort of the whole point of the book. There is no explicit narrative, just glimpses into a much larger surrealist tale of rebellion and triumph that the viewer is free to flesh out however they like. I think that the way we chose to work together and the final product fit in really nicely with the nebulous narrative of my entire body of work. The feelings are clear and there is evidence of a story, but the specific details are open to interpretation. Depending on what is going on inside the person looking, the battles within my universe can symbolize pretty much anything.
10. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find your work? Any shows/events coming up? Anywhere people can find your work and anything you'd like to share, fire away!
My website is www.grooseling.com and my instagram is @grooseling! Due to Covid-19, all my upcoming shows have been postponed, but I am staying positive. Follow me for updates! I am very excited to be releasing my first children’s book though, which I created with my sister, Lucy Lang. The book, March On!, celebrates the 1915 Women’s Suffrage March and the importance of voting rights. To learn more and see some of the artwork, check out www.marchonny.com - there is an Amazon pre-order link up there too.