In looking back, he found his way forward. One of his first art projects was his “Selective Memory Series” for the avant-garde magazine Purple—80 pages consisting largely of digitally manipulated notes from Lang’s friends and fashion colleagues. (“Never mind the awards, I looked smashing, didn’t I?” scribbled Roman Polanski in one of them.) Its publication caused a stir, not least because the authors had assumed that their private notes were just that. But the scrim between public and private has always intrigued Lang, who recalls that once he scanned the notes, they assumed an “accidental visual pattern” irrespective of time, rank or gender. In any case, he says, many of those featured were “probably glad to have been remembered and not shredded.”
Ironically, his debut exhibition (he presented a single work at Brooklyn’s Journal Gallery in 2007) came about when the Kestnergesellschaft proposed a retrospective of Lang’s career as a designer. Though Lang had started a fashion archive, even buying back a number of older pieces on eBay, he couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to complete it. “I’m not interested. I’m doing new work,” he told the director. So the director offered to show that instead.
What’s striking about his new work is how deeply personal it is in the way that Lang recycles artifacts and details from his life, “materials that have the imprint of history on them,” says the show’s cocurator, Neville Wakefield. “There’s an extent to which he’s excavating his own past and stripping it of the associations it might have had and turning it into something new.” The same attention to detail, shape and materials is there, only now, says Lang, he can say what he wants in different proportions, forms and contexts, freed from the limitations of the human body and the way it moves. “And the waste in art is much less than in fashion,” he jokes.
The week before his sculptures and installations were shipped to Hanover, Lang gave me a tour. Inside the open barn, three wooden American eagles that once sat in his SoHo store had been sliced, transformed and weathered into abstracted forms. Arbor, a 40-foot maypole sculpture that Lang had constructed on the front lawn, referenced the community rituals of his rural Austrian childhood, though hanging from it were iron wreaths, with feathery strips recycled from a dismantled boa, in place of ribbons. Nearby were Lang’s lifeforms works—two nine-by-three-foot minimalist oak boxes filled with sheepskin and covered with tar—which, “depending on your emotional state,” says Lang, evoke either graves or gardens. On the floor inside the house, he carefully laid out several pieces from an astonishingly tactile, painterly series he calls surrogate skins. At first glance, they look like luxurious animal hides but, on closer inspection, reveal themselves to be accumulated layers of translucent paper that Lang spent considerable time coloring and gluing. “Most people start with a tabula rasa,” says Wakefield. “Helmut starts with something elaborate and often ornate and reduces it to its abstract essence, which is what he did in fashion as well.” In fact, the new works—much like Lang’s tailored peacoats, layered T-shirts and narrow, sharply cut suits made of unlikely fabrics—look remarkably casual, even nonchalant. But stay with them a while and you realize, says Wakefield, “that there is an incredible sort of alchemy of arrangement going on.”