Wes Lang’s Yeezus Shirts Mark a Perfect Artistic Union
With the "Yeezus" tour shirts stirring so much controversy, we consider why the design collaboration is so effective.
Words by Adam Lehrer
Old people can say what they want about us Millennials. They tell us that we’re self-involved, lazy and obsessed with our phones. But over-exposure does have some benefits, with the biggest being that so many people like just about EVERYTHING. Less and less are there divisions between “punk,” “goth,” and “b-boy.” Sub-cultures grow more and more obsolete by the day, and that’s great because sub-cultures are inherently stupid. People are defining their individualism by what they like, not what crowd they hang in. You grew up watching and playing baseball but you want to be an experimental DJ in Bed-Stuy? Sure. You are a consummate artist painting like you’re the next Basquiat but that Michael Bay flick looks pretty entertaining? Cool, go see it. I am proud to be of a generation that is so plugged into a plethora of creative mediums and media. Everything is cool to everyone, and that’s cool.
The teaming up of hip hop’s darkest, looniest and biggest superstar, Kanye West, with New York-based visual artist Wes Lang is an excellent by-product of living in an age when something that makes so little sense can make perfect sense. Lang designed the Yeezus tour shirts pictured above leaving some mesmerized/stoked and others morally outraged. But one thing that is more important than what you think of these shirts is that this is a collaboration that is strange and perfect, and what is art if not confrontational? Arguably the world’s greatest visionary pop star enlists a visionary artist to make the coolest tour shirt possible. This is a tour t-shirt almost as buzz-worthy as the tour itself, a tour t-shirt that will be worn for years to come and its significance discussed. A tour-de-force of a tour t-shirt? Yes, please.
Sure, the majority of Kanye fans probably don’t know who Wes is, but Wes’s fans sure know who Kanye is. Their aesthetics don’t match, but they do share certain attributes; an obvious one being that they both have perfected their own unique look. Both of these guys rock sartorial choices that speak to their overall artistic aesthetics. Kanye dons himself in beautiful designer clothes and in doing so changed the face of hip-hop fashion forever, and for the better. His obscenely over-expensive wardrobe reinforces his arrogance and strong-willed belief that he is not only, better, but he’s the best. The same attitude allowed him to make a song like “Runaway.” Wes, who became interested in art while working at a tattoo shop after school when he was a teenager, sports full sleeve tattoos consisting of everything from shottily done stick and poke skulls to highly detailed and professionally done girl heads. You will never see him without his leather biker vest, black jean and either a Slayer or Grateful Dead t-shirt. In the stuffy and slightly effete sartorial world of Chelsea gallery men, Wes’s classic outlaw look is as refreshing as it is striking. He takes an old classic look, and subverts it into something that is worthy of your attention.
These are easily two of the most important American artists in any medium, and have both gotten to the top of their games through an impossible to fake uncompromising sensibility. Kanye West has redefined hip hop, and that opinion seems fairly universal, despite what people think of him personally. As much as the haters love to hate, when I am an old man Kanye West will be remembered as the most important musical artist of my time. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is still the best album of the last five years with its grandiosity-laden mega-productions stripped down to hip hop size while embracing baroque, electro and soul music. It’s already number 353 on Rolling Stone’s 500 best records list, and will probably keep going up when they realize the Beatles only had one great record (The White Album) and a beautiful hit (“Don’t Let me Down) and that they are boring and old.
Yeezus might very well be my favorite album of this year, and that’s saying a lot. I’ve been blown away time and time again by new records this year; from the Chelsea Wolfe record to the new Drake joint and lest we forget the amazing Modern Life is War reunion record. But Yeezus is packed with so much industrial grit and urban punch that only Kanye could have sold it to a major record label. It hints at Throbbing Gristle, no actually it’s nothing like Throbbing Gristle, objectively. But the energy of this record reminds me of the early UK industrial bands, just sick and attention-seeking and fucking LOUD. Hell, 808s and Heartbreaks isn’t his best record but without it would we have Drake? Would we have Miguel? Frank Ocean? How to Dress Well? Kanye got sick of rapping and started a new genre. His persona is so off the rails that he screams in your face, “Like me or not, it doesn’t mean shit to me.” He has pissed people off, subverted expectations, made masterpieces and changed pop music. As “The Sopranos” demonstrated that a long form television series was capable of reaching for high art, Kanye proved that the pop superstar persona could be elevated to performance art. He throws touchy subjects in our face so we learn to swallow them. His music, his interviews and his award show appearances draw on race, hate, pain, lust, anger, debauchery and so much more. Kanye has redefined what the American pop star is; part musical genius, part self-aggrandizing jester.
Someone knowing nothing about art might not be overly impressed with the paintings and drawings of Wes Lang. Conversely, someone who knows a lot about art and has been collecting for decades might be left similarly unenthused. The people who seem to understand his work the best are those that can just take it in as an aesthetic experience. That’s where Wes Lang’s ideas seep in. His work typically consists of large-scale drawings of a smattering of tattoo imagery; skulls, girls, indians, reapers, blood and more. Combined with ominous phrases these groupings of images form collages. I am a tattoo head, and his connection to that scene initially made me a fan of his work. I feel compelled to admit this because his connection to tattoo culture seems the main thing holding him back from mainstream success. But to label him as, “A tattoo artist that paints,” is false. Tattooing is a trade, and I think the best tattoo artists are the ones that consider it as such, i.e. someone has an idea, a wolf head or whatever, and the tattoo artist puts the wolf on the person. Those guys’/girls’ idea of an image usually only goes so far as how the tattoo will look on skin. It’s creative and it’s awesome but not truly art. Lang’s work is going thousands of miles deeper, using the familiar reference points of tattoo imagery, sex and drugs to say what he wants about love, death, hate and what it means to be an American in 2013. Looks at his recent work, “Midnight Wine” from earlier this year. In it, you are confronted with a dizzying array of images including: a skull wearing an Indian headdress on the cover of what appears to be a book called “The Great American Novel,” a skull/rose, mountains, an angel, a hot big breasted woman, a rose, an hour glass, a reaper, and text that reads, “We need new dreams,” “Eternal life,” “Midnight Wine,” and “Wait a minute, watch what you’re doin’ with your time all the endless ruins of the past must stay behind.” Get it?
Though disorienting to be sure, Lang’s work is not sloppy. On the contrary his work is morbidly beautiful demonstrating a steady hand, indeed. But by confronting the viewer with a barrage of imagery that the viewer already has preconceived notions about, the viewer must confront why he feels this way and why this imagery conjures intense connotations. Wes Lang’s work makes us feel the horrors of American history and the inescapable reality that is the past. His work lets us know that we will in fact die one day. But he also lets us know that with a life there is always time for rebirth, time to change what you want to change. Wes Lang’s first solo book just came out two weeks ago, well over 15 years after first moving to Hoboken, taking up a job at the Guggenheim and getting tattooed and painting all day. His ascent to art stardom was initially a slow burner, much like pre-rapping producer Kanye. But once he rose, his ascent was meteoric. And like Kanye, Lang uses familiar methods to tap into headier zones of thought.
Basically, this is the only tour t-shirt I’ve ever heard of that has sparked controversy, not to mention legitimate buzz. The shirts are anticipated for crying out loud! I saw a guy wearing one in Providence and I got excited! Except for Marilyn Manson in the pussy-fied 90s, I can’t recall witnessing media covering the shirts at the merchandise tables of a big tour. But that’s what Kanye and Wes are about. These are two painfully creative men birthing some of the most important American art in 2013, and now they are working together. And I know I have over-analyzed this whole thing, but these are two completely different artists sharing similar ideas but demonstrating opposite aesthetics. They are both at the top of their game, and the mere mention of these two names in a sentence together shows a glimpse of what is possible with social media and the ever-diversifying tastes of the American public.