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A passionate affair with paint

Lfe, art and love collide for Ojai's Gary Lang and Ruth Pastine

By Stephanie Kinnear

Photo by Christy Sisneros

Ruth and Gary sharing a memory in front of one ofGary's unfinished paintings

“We were in love and when you’re in love, you’re mad.”

–GARY LANG-

Artist Gary Lang explains how he and Ruth Pastine, his wife also an artist, worked together on one of his pieces at a gallery in Boca Raton, Florida. They were painting a 13-foot wall tondo, or circular piece of art, called “Top of the Sky.” The piece took 10 days to finish and the staff at the gallery videotaped the whole process. “We didn’t talk at all,” remembers Lang. “We were like one person with two bodies.”

Lang and Pastine, who moved to Ojai from New York in 2001, are a study in physical contrasts. His disheveled grey hair is offset by her dark brown, perfectly trimmed bangs; his paint splattered, faded green t-shirt contrasted by her black, fitted sweater. He is tall and broad shouldered and she is tiny. The two don’t finish each others sentences, so much as complement them. Lang tells a story about a trip to Bangkok and Pastine adds a few scenic details. Pastine talks about when they first met and Lang offers his slightly alternate perspective of the same night. Lang can’t recall a name of a mutual friend from New York but an hour later, Pastine remembers.

Like the artists themselves, their paintings, at first glance, seem as if they couldn’t be more different. But, in reality, they are intrinsically linked by the artists’ use of color and self-reflective meditation on the process of painting itself.

“Blue Orange” series by Ruth Pastine

the BEGINNING

Lang and Pastine met at an exhibit in New York City on Dec. 9, 1989, on the eve of her 25th birthday. As the story goes, Lang asked Pastine a question. But a little jaded by the dating scene, he included in the question what he calls “a trouble hook,” a clause that could have lured Pastine into revealing a few of her undesirable qualities. The content of the question and the response are insignificant. The only detail of any importance is that by the time Pastine was done answering, Lang knew he was in the presence of someone who would change the course of his life.

And then, contrary to common romantic sense, he didn’t call Pastine for six months.

“I was being prudent. I wanted to do things the right way, preparing myself for something legendary,” explains Lang.

When he did finally call her, instead of asking her out, he hired her. At the time, Pastine was working for a number of artists in New York as a studio manager. Lang knew that bringing her into his studio would be the most honest, intimate way for the two to get to know each other.

Pastine, of course, was no hapless bystander in all of this. She describes the night she met Lang as a door. She recognized the encounter as a pivotal moment: She would either go through the door or she would go the other way. Whether or not they ever spoke again, meeting him signified a moment of change in her life.

“Tape Piece” by Gary Lang

Being with someone who was as serious about their art as she was about hers was a welcome awakening. Pastine likens the experience to traveling in a foreign country, being unable to communicate with anyone and then stumbling across a stranger who speaks English. The relief she felt with Lang was that concrete.

“Everything was like when you are six and everything is clear,” says Lang.

the LONG ROAD from New York City to Ojai

Pastine was born and raised in Manhattan, an experience that has shaped everything from her mannerisms to her sense of humor. She speaks quickly. She laughs loudly. She is both uncensored and thoughtful. Growing up in a city where life is experienced as a fleeting series of two second impressions has given her a reason and ability to make quick judgments. Lang was born in Los Angeles but spent 24 years living and working in New York City. He earned his Masters of Fine Arts from Yale and then traveled to Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship.

After working together for just over a year, Lang and Pastine moved into a Soho loft, where they lived and worked for 12 years. Lang proposed in 1992 and they were married in 1993. In 1997, Pastine gave birth to their son, Chance. But, in 2001, very pregnant with their daughter, Sage, Pastine decided that she did not want to have another baby in New York.

“Red Green” series by Ruth Pastine

Pastine had lived in New York her entire life. The two were in well-established galleries and had created serious reputations in the New York art world, but, just four months before Sept. 11, they moved their family to Ojai. For a year and a half, Pastine and Lang searched for the perfect home, finally settling on a small house just outside of Ojai that had enough property on which to build a large studio.

That studio, just completed in August of last year, is a massive building with high ceilings and huge skylights. Half of it is Lang’s and the other half, separated by a tiny foyer and supply closet, is Pastine’s.

It was a leap of faith. And there was some obvious culture shock. When Pastine strolled down Main Street in Ojai for the first time, she couldn’t believe that it was only one block long. “I expected some kind of a downtown. Like, maybe Portland,” she says now, laughing. “But Ojai is a place that unfolds; you can’t know it at first glance.”

in LOVE with Art

Lang creates visually challenging explorations of color often using nothing more than lines — huge, dense weavings of lines of color or large circles with concentric rings of various hues. The paintings are methodical with a strong connection to certain shapes but there is an underlying almost frenetic energy holding everything together. When Lang is painting, he explains, he is always moving.

A section of “Sonora” by Gary Lang

In contrast to Lang’s work, Pastine’s paintings seem almost deceptively subtle at first. One appears to be a huge, solid red canvas, with a space in the center where light is reflected. Another might start with a deep purple towards the top and transition seamlessly to green by the bottom. But these almost-optical illusions in Pastine’s work are created through hours and hours of intense painting. Using eight layers of paint, Pastine creates seamless transitions in shade and color through a vigorous process she describes as “a workout.”

“The thing about Gary and Ruth, to me,” says Donna Granata, Executive Director of the nonprofit arts program Focus on the Masters, “is I appreciate that they are willing to engage in our community, and bring such sophistication to the art community here … When you really start to study the subtlety and the layers in Ruth and Gary’s paintings, you become more enlightened and gain a better understanding of the process. There is a lot more to art than most people realize and when we start to recognize that, we raise our level of sophistication and our appreciation.”

Neither Lang nor Pastine paints landscapes or still lives; neither looks to anything outside their own work for inspiration. “We both make paintings that are about painting, and because of that they have the potential to be transcendent. They are about what they are,” explains Lang.

“The painting process itself,” adds Pastine, “is inspiring.”

02-01-2007

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