In the Clear Night of Day

Graham Lang

PHANTASM review

It begins where it ends; in nothingness.
Whispering images unblocked from time and distance.
A dream so real yet cannot be touched by others, on a course charted by some unseen hand.
The journey ahead promising no more than the past reflected upon itself, facing a truth no longer denied.

Born out of context and motivated from a dislocated state of being, Graham Lang searches for absolution in his latest biographical odyssey, In the Clear Night of Day. In the seemingly endless pursuit to answer often unanswerable questions ascertaining to ones state of being, Lang takes an intuitive approach to painting, utilising a plethora of creative devices and metaphorical symbolisms in search for considerable outcomes. Before analysing the allegorical intent, we must first look at the processes the artist undertakes and deconstruct the formal qualities of the works.

For most of the works throughout his oeuvre, Lang applies thin layers of oil in whimsical, broad strokes on top of crisp, smooth surfaces. Paint is always controlled and contained within reason, resulting in a deliberately delicate finish. Human and animal figures are rendered semi-transparent through washes of earth- toned oil pigment. Clean. Simple. Grand. Subjects either become the compositional focus or are down scaled and placed within uninhabited, mysterious terrain.

Above: Graham Lang artist studio, Police Point, overlooking the lower reaches of the Huon River

Sombre, hollowed-eyed characters stare out beyond the canvas, through the viewer to the unknown, perhaps looking back to the past or towards eternity. Sometimes the artist collage pastes photographs of eyes, sometimes he just paints this anguish. With their seweny limbs and starving torsos, Lang’s wise antipodean, ghost-like, human forms are flayed to the bone; the familiar form is striped back uncomfortably so, to expose something beyond the mere mortal coil.

Above: Graham Lang, Thousand Yard Stare, 2019. Oil on board

Haunted characters are contrasted against simple, crisp backgrounds, generally light in tone or left blank, designed specifically to place maximum focus on the figure. Works are conceived with an idea in mind and produced through a combination of technical skill, personal experience and intuition. The process and painting act drives the themes, quite often the happy accident or moments of chance alter the direction of the work, in turn reshaping the conceptual outcome. Lang reaches “far more interesting revelations(1) when channelling the Surrealist notion of the ‘marvellous’,(2) “whereby sudden and seemingly coincidental accidents or juxtapositions can activate powerful new associations”(3) and produce all new results. or as Louis Aragon put it, “the marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.”(4) What spawns as a germ of an idea manifests into a symphony of circumstances, where the marvellous is welcomed. Lang certainly presents a host of complex conundrums throughout his painterly journey, always allowing for revelations along the way.

Identity and notions of belonging are always central to the core when considering works by Graham Lang, who regularly chronicles a migrants search for belonging, both mentally, physically and indeed spiritually throughout his enigmatic imagery. In the Clear Night of Day is no exception. Lang strives to take the viewer with him on this spiritual journey in ambiguous, sometimes conflicting, often mysterious ways. This is firmly apparent in the small scale landscape paintings from the Explorer series. Looking at Eve from this series, Lang mediates the setting for the viewer by utilising the Rückenfigur.(5)

Left : Graham Lang, Explorer series- Eve. 2020, oil on card
Right: Casper David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Sea, 1818. Oil on board

Works such as Which Way? and similar landscapes reference notions of belonging and affinity to place. Here, personalised connections linking post-colonial Australia to Africa and Britain are represented through vast, desolate expanses of space, void of all elements except humanity. The search for an invisible Arcadia; a paradise perpetually lost, yet the surviving human spirit yearns to keep on searching. 

This idea is central to the motivations of Sidney Nolan, notably from his works created between 1950-1960. Here, Nolan was particularly interested in 18th and 19th-century Australian explorers, portraying ideas and symbolisms ascertaining to national folklore and pursuing themes of man against nature, the human spirit and survival. His paintings were often made up of post-apocalyptic, earth-toned crimsons, contrasting against immense, pale blue skies.

Left : Sidney Nolan, Central Australia, 1950. Oil on board
Right: Sidney Nolan, Mrs Fraser and convict, 1962-64. Oil and enamel on composition board

In the wearisome image Burke and Camel from 1966, Nolan depicts the fraught relationship between man and the land, mythologising both the harsh, sunburnt outback, while emphasising the vulnerability of humanity. The lone, frail figure is precariously placed on top of the camel beast, with their elongated necks and primal nature, both man and beast seem to merge into one another and their environment. 

Above : Sidney Nolan, Burke and camel, 1962. synthetic polymer paint on hardboard

For his Explorer series, Lang takes on similar paradoxical notions ascertaining to the interconnectedness of all things. Works such as Big Stick and Adams Dark Night are painted in modes of contrast, humanity is the light illuminated against the unforgiving darkness of nature. Stark and mysterious, this ‘X-ray’ imagery is potentially foreboding, or perhaps playfully inquisitive, depending on the interpretation.

Left: Graham Lang, Big Stick, 2020. Oil on card
Right: Graham Lang, Adams Dark Night, 2020. Oil on card

Conversely, Adam Learns His Limits merges human figure with the environment. Indeed man and nature are inseparable; bound and reliant on nature for survival, yet paradoxically destroying it. Lang uses the notion of opposites in powerful, even complimentary ways. The duality of light and dark, night and day, male and female, indeed life and death are interdependent, yet interconnected. A complex paradox. We are inexorably bound to nature, while separated from it. We risk losing our humanity when we trespass against nature. When we do- our fate will fall to annihilation. 

Left: Graham Lang, Adam Beholds the Wonder, 2020. Oil card
Right: Graham Lang, Adam Learns His Limits, 2020. Oil on card

A creative device offering a direct line to the artist’s thoughts and inspirations, is the use of the impassive head with ‘thought bubble’ technique. With works such as Breaking Through, Lang suggests that one’s affinity to home resides within. In the artists own words “Identity is determined in large part by place, usually a childhood home that forms us and ultimately resides in us even when we are separated from it.”(6) Home is where the heart is.

Left: Graham Lang, Breaking Through, 2019. Oil and collage on board
Middle: Graham Lang, Special Angel, 2020. Oil, gold leaf, collage on board
Right: Graham Lang, Breach, 2019. Oil on board

Here, he proposes that we see ourselves as the centre of our own existence; we view our own distinct ideas of ‘home’ through a uniquely bias lens. Our initial idyllic concepts of ‘home’ and belonging can warp our expectations later in life, reality seldom lines up to the mythical constructions of the mind.

One of Lang’s primary focuses is that of anthropomorphism and ideas relating to the archaic human/animal hybrid. His oeuvre explores formal qualities of both human and animal bodies, oftentimes, highlighting the irreconcilable differences, other times, drawing parallels between the two.

Left: Titian, The Allegory of Prudence, c.1550–1565
Right: Rene Magritte, Minotaure no.10, 1950

In works such as Strange Lovebirds, “animal surrogates evoke human narratives.” (7) In Pigheaded, a hyper-realistic and methodically composed animal body merges with the impulsively drawn, impassive, human head. This moment of acute realism(pig body) combined with the instinctive,(human torso) demonstrates Lang’s control of materials- he understands the potential of paint and acknowledges the power of contrasts

Left: Graham Lang, Strange LovebirdsJackson & Lee, 2019. Oil on board
Right: Graham Lang, Pig-headed, 2019. Oil on board


In previous works, animals have held powerful metaphorical status- dogs have been used as symbols of the psyche or perhaps depression, bulls have been a symbol of irony and vulnerability, while birds, the spirit. In this series, we see winged desert centaurs, dogs, reptiles, birds, boars and levitating whales. The pig here is a basic self portrait representation of stubbornness, where the animal represents ones flaws. The horse figure is taken straight from Greek mythology, a symbol of poetic inspiration or even an allegory illustrating the immortality of the soul. The lovebird however, a more positive metaphor, for which depicts an affinity for nature and connection to others.

Left: Graham Lang, Pegasus, 2020. Oil on card
Centre: Pegasus, Athenian red-figure kylix C6th B.C
Right: Paul Joseph Blanc, Perseus riding Pegasus, 1869. Oil on canvas


Perhaps the whale metaphor here is the most optimistic, the great mammal breaks free of limitations in a symbol of momentary divinity. In The Breach, the whale as spirit animal breaks through its designated environment for just a moment in time; both man, animal and environment are interconnected, at peace. The whale symbol is one of yearning, of transformation and potential. A metaphor suggesting that one’s inability to transcend physical boundaries is a limitation only within the mind. That is, each of us has an infinite amount of inherent potential; the physical world is our blank slate, our canvas. Lang’s canvas is not wasted. 

Above: Graham Lang, Breach, 2019. Oil on board

Spiritual ideas also run central to works such as Samsara, the title alluding to the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation.(8) In Lang’s Samsara, two souls are bound together, if not for a fleeting moment, before mortality inevitably takes each away. The limbo between existence and extinction is blurred; a moment of brilliance is a momentary escape for impending doom. Samsara, Exodus, as well as Genesis, present the combining of male/female union, where interlocking with someone’s soul potential can harness greater power.

Left: Graham Lang, Samsara– Take this Waltz, 2020. Oil on board
Right: The Buddhist Bhavachakra– The Three Poisons of Ignorance, Aversion and Attachment represented by Pig, Snake and Bird

Left: Graham Lang, Exodus (For Better or Worse), 2020. Oil on board
Right:
Graham Lang, Genesis, 2020. Oil on card

In Which Way, the human spirit transcends its physical limitation, making way for spiritual awakenings. Utilising Adam and Eve iconography reminiscent of Doré’s Paradise Lost allegory carries with it not so subtle suggestions- Adam and Eve could either be cast out and lost in anguish, or perhaps undertaking an enigmatic adventure in search for salvation or eternal life. Again, an ambiguity of conflicting contrasts. 

Left: Graham Lang, Which Way?, 2020. Oil on card
Right:
Gustavo Doré, Paradise Lost- Adam and Eve, 1868. Engraving

The setting for Lemmings could be interpreted as the beginning or the end. An uncharted Eden being explored,(optimism) or an apocalypse taking place.(cynicism) The depiction of land in this painting is reminiscent of Peter Booth’s cataclysmic wastelands; rugged, vast, primal. The inhabiting beings, or ‘lemmings’, belong in a Tool music video, they lack evolved human physical characteristics. They are subterranean aliens, perhaps a superior race of humanoids from the future, here to warn or destroy mankind. Perhaps a race for which has evolved to perfectly adapt to their environment. Or possibly the first humans to discover the earth; the beginning of human evolution. Or not. At his core, Lang is a natural storyteller, seamlessly weaving religious iconography and Ancient Greek mythology together in creating his own cogent metaphors and personalised philosophies for us to decipher.

Above: Graham Lang, Lemmings, 2018. Oil on board
Below:
Peter Booth, Dark Seascape, 1989. Oil on canvas

Painting on a raw impulse, Lang uses the sudden and seemingly coincidental accident to “activate powerful new associations”(9) and steer towards alternate narrative outcomes. What perhaps spawns as a logical idea manifests into something more, the artist is able to tap into his subconscious and allow deeper meanings to grow. Imagery such as The Breach and other ‘thought bubble’ pictures, show us that Lang’s “currency of communication”(10) spawns from an abstruse subconscious, well fed by dreams. 

Above: Graham Lang, Works from ‘In the Clear Night of Day‘

Hidden within each work lurks a perpetual anxiety, a deep, unsettling sense of melancholy. This seems reminiscent to that of the 19th-century Surrealists, who used dream influence and disconcerting symbolisms to express their deepest, darkest subconscious desires and fears. Artists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí incorporated Freudian ideas and processes of automatism in the exploration of philosophical concepts of ‘the self’, the results well documented.

Left: Max Ernst, The Angel of the home or the Triumph of Surrealism, 1937. Oil on canvas
Right: Salvador Dalí, Soft Self-Portrait with Bacon, 1941. Oil on canvas

Above: Graham Lang, Career works depicting ‘thought bubble’ portraits, 1990-2020

Lang may not agree with any Freudian ideas, yet still adopts the intuitive Surrealist approach and at times, perhaps unwittingly, exposes his own dark shadow self (11) and aspects of his own personality that he has unconsciously rejected or repressed. Who is to say that Lang’s shadow self has not manifested in dreams and the subconscious mind, making itself known through pure, raw impulses and acts of chance? Look at his primal human figuration- are we seeing an emergence of a shadow past; the paths not taken, traumatic life events, regret, unfulfilled desires and ultimate fears of annihilation? The forms, with their raw, creatural bodies and anguish etched in their eyes- speaks of a primal intuition; an animal instinct. Lang walks the tight rope between existence and extinction, resulting in a disquieting sense of existential isolation, a yearning for more. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said- “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”(12) The search continues.

Above: Graham Lang, Gallery Installation views

Musings aside, Lang paints with tender humanity, always conveying the uncertain fragility of life. His paintings cut through the superficial and the materialistic, instead, his internal struggles and rich living experiences manifest as part of a grand metaphor regarding the human condition. One either leading towards self destruction, or a monumental revelation. Is it the beginning, or the end?

PHANTASM review

References

1. Graham Lang, July 2016

2. The marvellous is metaphysical concept initiated by Andre Breton in 1924, for which challenged functions of both art and reality. The Surrealist notion gave way to new ways of thinking and art making, such as automatism, in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the making process.

3. Graham Lang, July 2016

4. Polizzotti, Mark (1995). Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton

5. The Rückenfigur technique is most commonly associated with 19th-century German painter, Caspar David Friedrich, most notably, in the work The Wanderer Above the Sea from 1818. Friedrich uses the Rückenfigur in order to invite the viewer to imagine themselves in the landscape and experience the sublime potential of nature.

6. Graham Lang, October 2018

7. Graham Lang, July 2016

8. Samsara in Buddhism is the beginningless cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence and physical death, for which sees an interconnection and separation of spirit and physical body.

9. Graham Lang, 2016

10. Andrew Harper, Ever Questioning, Mercury Tasweekend, 2018

11. The concept of the shadow came to prominence by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In Jungian psychology, the shadow is the unconscious, uncivilised and unknown aspect of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself.

12. Nietzsche, F. W., In Kaufmann, W., Hollingdale, R. J., & Nietzsche, F. W. (1989). On the genealogy of morals.