ALL CAPS: Painter Gary Lang has long been recognized as one of the most distinguished practitioners of colorful hard-edge abstraction. No account of the recent history of abstract painting would be complete without at least one of his signature multicolored concentric-circle paintings. As a painter, he’s both the logical extension of Josef Albers’s seminal work, with shifting hues and values arrayed in colored squares, and the psychedelic Zen cousin of Gerhard Richter’s passionate chromaticism. But in his big new show called Edging Reason — words (at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard through May 19), Lang has come up with an entirely different project. These word drawings in paint, while rooted in the same skills he has developed working on the circles, have a totally different look and feel.
In this work, Lang hand-letters various poetic phrases, mostly of his own devising, into lyrical and grid-like compositions of alternating primary colors. The hand-lettered images come in several varieties. Some very short phrases, such as “Let’s call it a day,” get an open treatment in which the white space between the letters is the focus, a choice that’s accentuated by strategic omissions. For example, in “Let’s call it a day,” Lang leaves in the apostrophe but cancels the letter “C.” As the phrases get longer and more complex, the letters begin to run together more closely, and, although Lang is careful not to allow the many beautiful colored lines to ever overlap, some of the more extravagant figures engage the adjacent space, such as when the elongated leg strokes on a capital M or an uppercase A sweep down around the letter below.
Because of the way that Lang deliberately avoids conventional word spacing and the lowercase, the works are all a little difficult to read: not impossible, but tricky and recalcitrant enough that the gallery created loose-leaf notebooks with the typed texts as a kind of subtitle system. Although there is much to ponder in the texts on their own, the eye is drawn again and again to the walls, where the most lasting impression comes from seeing the sheer range of effects that Lang has achieved over the course of creating the more than 70 images in this exhibition. For this purpose, the Carnegie’s Mezzanine Gallery, with its great horizontal wall, makes a particularly effective venue.
Sitting on the bench in front of these massed images, it’s possible to discern multiple approaches within the larger flow. Once the phrases arrive at a certain density, Lang’s organizational impulses appear to split. Some expressions, like “The Truth” (the full text begins “a cadre of regime information managers spreading skullduggery beneath a veneer of …”), get a jagged, cascading treatment in which the letters continually shift across the verticals of the grid. In others, the letters form neat columns, paradoxically further reducing readability in the service of an alternate system of organization. In certain cases, individual letters emerge through stylization. Once the ubiquitous “E” acquires the squashed-flat horizontality of the font on an eye chart, it pops from every image.
The overall effect is also twofold and energizing. First of all, the show embeds the viewer in a perceptual world where reading takes more effort than usual, a situation that apparently reflects some aspect of the experience of the artist, who claims that he came late to reading and only began pursuing it regularly in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Secondly, it operates as a kind of musical flourish of the artist’s skill with color. Listen with your eyes to what these grids of letters are saying — there’s a message in their patterns that is just as important as the message spelled out in the words.