Reconciling Disruption in Graham Lang’s Finding Form

Graham Lang's new show at Despard Gallery offers mythic imaginings that are reminiscent of Giacometti's metal flesh and Arthur Boyd's biblical explorations.

Entitled Finding Form, Graham Lang’s upcoming exhibition searches for primal encounters through paint and sculpture. The elusive title gestures to many things at once, perhaps setting the stage for a type of origin story, or a juxtaposition between modern and pre-modern mythologies and ways of being.

But Finding Form could signal an emerging form, and a yearning for a cohesion yet to be found. German Romantic philosopher F.W.J. Schelling (1775–1854) asserted that the divine or Absolute incarnates all forms at once, and thus epitomises formlessness, revealing a secret unity between polarities.

I am not claiming that Lang was influenced by Schelling, but romantic tendencies find expression in his work, and not merely in his concern for mythology and primordial states. One particular landscape, Promised Land, 2021, uses a device indexical to Caspar David Friedrich. As with Friedrich, a solitary figure is dwarfed by their surrounds. However, Lang’s rendering is steeped in paint providing a thoroughly Antipodean texture, with a semi-silhouetted Rückenfigur (perhaps a person belonging to a First Nation?) peering out toward the shore.

Having taught at the University of Newcastle for twenty years (he also received his PhD from the institution), Lang’s work engages with different, even contradictory histories of art, including through his preoccupation with angels. Angels were an obsession for Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, 1920, notably inspired a celebrated passage penned by critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) in his essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History. More recently, angels have come to evoke the posthuman hybrid “Other,” breaking down dichotomies between human, animal, and machine.

Still, there is something modern about the idea of the angel’s winged body with its reflexive associations with Icarus (a sort of icon of modernity) and the Wright brothers. Lang himself was influenced by Antony Gormley’s thoroughly industrial Angel of the North, 1998, praising the sculpture’s “wingspan of a jumbo jet.”

Unlike Gormley’s sculpture though, there is a sense of possible trauma or, at least, dislocation to Lang’s angels. For instance, in his painting, Angel Many Splendid, 2022, the angel’s dark eyes glisten, and the body seems constructed from different parts, and therefore assumes a cyborgian quality. The angel reminds me of Giacometti’s metal flesh, and Lang’s painterly texture and thematic choices may also recall Arthur Boyd’s religiously themed paintings.

On the subject of possible influences, Strange Lovebirds (A Hollywood Penny Dreadful), 2021, is itself a kind of hybrid. The painting depicts a not-quite reclining woman touching her dress as a strange bird-man monster approaches. The woman’s body appears stiff and angular, recalling the contorted women of Egon Schiele’s portraits, while the creature seems to be a nod to the myth of Leda and the Swan, a common subject in classical and renaissance art. The parenthetical title of the work invites further speculation (perhaps in a post-Weinstein context, one may think of Hollywood casting couches).

Despite the seeming myriad of divergent influences (or because of them), the artworks belong together. The works manage to find form, if you excuse the word play, even as they gesture to displacement, with European mythical entities juxtaposed against a context of the southern hemisphere. In this way, Lang’s exhibition reconciles as it disrupts, revealing hybrid forms, not only of being, but of art itself.

Graham Lang: Finding Form
8 March 2023 – 1 April 2023
Despard Gallery, Hobart

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