Masters and Monsters: A Conversation with Artist Mark Lang

August 12, 2013

Known for his multilayered re-imaginings of art historical works and fictional museum scenes, Mark Lang (MFA 1990 Illustration as Visual Essay) had a long stint as a freelance illustrator after graduating from SVA. But his passion is painting—his work is exhibited regularly and is included in private and corporate collections. Lang is among the SVA alumni featured in “The Pond, the Mirror, the Kaleidoscope.”

lang200You’re known for complex paintings that reference masterpieces of art, or elements of masterpieces, or scenes of the artists themselves making art. It almost seems like you imagine the viewer as a voyeur. What inspired your interest in this approach?
I’ve always adhered to making representational paintings. At a certain point, I began to question what it was, exactly, that interested me about this way of working. It occurred to me that I might be able to shed some light on this persistent interest by making paintings about pictures, and pictures about the making of paintings. I explore the historical context of pictures, the histories of art and artists, the technical aspects of making a composition and the emotional and intellectual content of a given representation. I make connections between various ideas and images with a sense of play.

I think there is an aspect of voyeurism in representational work generally that I like to exploit. I enjoy the idea of making people aware that they are looking at a two-dimensional illusion. It’s a bit like a magician who explains his tricks without ruining the sense of magic.

Two of the three paintings in “The Pond, the Mirror, the Kaleidoscope”—specifically Grey, which features an alien, and Sasquatch—seem to be a real departure for you. When did you begin exploring imaginary beings, and why? Are you veering away from your trademark “painting within a painting” approach?
I’m continuing with the “paintings within paintings” approach, but occasionally I like to explore other ideas as a way of keeping things fresh and interesting for myself. The alien and Sasquatch paintings are part of a series on monsters that I started in 2010, initially inspired by one of my favorite books when I was young: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

I was always fascinated by Frankenstein’s creature as the most human of monsters. He’s at once repellent and human. I decided to make a painting of the creature as I had always imagined him, just out of a childlike urge to see the thing for myself. Once I had done this, I became interested in the idea of monsters in general, and humanoid monsters in particular. They represent human “otherness” both physically and psychologically.

Sasquatch725The paintings are all done “actual sized” to give the viewer a sense of scale, a sense of presence. The style is meant to be reminiscent of religious painting, science fiction and natural history illustration. I want to give at once a sense of the sublime and the ridiculous, the unreal and the real. I’m working on them slowly as a kind of side project, but eventually I hope to exhibit the complete series of monsters together.

You’ve been described as “a master of hyper-reality.” For example, in Post-Impression 2012, you perfectly reproduce Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh painting sunflowers. Gauguin himself is looking on, and he’s painted in the style of Van Gogh. What is your process for creating such realistic images? How much research is involved?
A painting like that generally comes from an intuitive association of ideas and images. It could come from some reading I’ve been doing, conversations, visits to exhibitions, looking at reproductions. I then synthesize all the residual impressions into a new image that conveys a particular idea or theme. I’ll do a few rough drawings, and then, if I feel there is some detail or other element missing, I do some additional research.

Technically speaking, if I’m going to try to reproduce a master work like Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, I look at many different photographic reproductions of the same painting, because I’ve often never seen the original. Then I simply paint the thing freehand, referring to the different reproductions. I don’t use a projector because I feel I would lose the spontaneous quality of the image.

vangogh720I’ve found the best approach is to behave a bit like an actor, trying to “get into character” as the person whose work I’m doing an impression of, and then painting in that mode. It means the reproductions will be “inaccurate,” but they have a feeling of the original (or at least the photographic reproductions of the original). That, to me, is more important to capture.

Who were your mentors at SVA and what was the most meaningful/useful advice you received?
I would say I learned things from each of my instructors that were valuable to me in different ways. From Carl Titolo I learned to take brief visual notes rather than always concentrating on “scenes.” He showed me that there is visual wonder everywhere to draw from. I remember Tom Woodruff saying—I think he may have been quoting someone—”What if you think of each painting as the last painting you’ll ever do?” This is a good way of forcing yourself to take what you are doing seriously. From Marshall Arisman I learned the importance of following your obsessions, wherever they might lead. I always benefited from the wisdom of his stories and from personal advice he gave on several occasions. From Greg Crane I learned most of what I know about the craft of painting. Without his advice and instruction, I’m not sure I would have even been able to start. By their dedication as artists, they all set a fine example to follow. I’m indebted to them all.

Related post: Q&A with Artist and Alumnus Mu Pan

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