Chef Sean Brock’s arm, in Technicolor tattooed glory, reaches from out of nowhere across the canvas. The arm, an exuberant buffet of color stretching over an homage to a classical still life (lush tomatoes, a cabbage, some spring onions), holds a small sprouting turnip, or maybe a white radish—just one more offering to add to the delicious-looking heap. You almost want to shake that hand—it looks so real. The painting immediately grabs people’s attention as they come into the Cassique Clubhouse for the afternoon talk and reception. This is the opening night of artist Robert Lange’s Kiawah three-day residency, and that kaleidoscopic arm, that canvas of vibrant vegetable whimsy, gives a small taste of the feast that is to follow.
“I’m a thirty-seven-year-old optimist and gallery owner, who’s been lucky to witness Charleston in this progressive moment. Time and again I see artists come here, beaten down by New York or LA, and find a new gleam and glisten,” says Lange, whose boyish eyes radiate plenty of glisten of their own. Examples of Lange’s work are displayed around the room—realist masterpieces with a whimsical, surreal undertow.
“My hope is to infuse a bit of levity and buoyancy to Kiawah’s collection,” the New Hampshire native and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate says, nodding to the work in progress that he’ll complete over the course of his Kiawah stay. A mischievous otter in a copper bowl.
An otter, because, well… “When I was a kid, two otters lived at the end of our lake, and for six years they graced us with their effervescence, always adding a sense of playfulness to the day,” he says. He’s been experimenting with painting reflective mixing bowls—that most humble of kitchen workhorses—and loves how their mirrored surface, both utilitarian yet elegant, challenges him to paint a painting within a painting. “Then when I put an animal in a reflective bowl, it somehow makes you reflect on yourself a little more,” he says.
Reflecting on himself as an artist is something Lange seems to have done plenty of. The frolicking lightness of his subject matter seems to bely the maturity of his creative wisdom, but those who interacted with him as he painted the wily otter over the next two days on Kiawah or heard his lecture learned that, to Lange, art is seriously playful business. In fact, his mission as artist in residence seemed to be encouraging others to embrace that they can be resident artists themselves.
“You just have to give yourself permission to go down that road,” he says. Don’t think you’re artistically gifted? Not to worry. “There’s no such thing as talent, just aptitude, and then a lot of work,” he affirms.
Which is not to say Lange didn’t think he had talent. When he enrolled at RISD, the young man who as a boy wanted nothing other than to paint Ninja Turtles arrived “with a giant ego, like everyone else who goes there,” he admits. But that was soon crushed as teachers gave harsh critiques of his work. One even suggested that he give up painting and just become an illustrator.
Good thing he didn’t listen.
Instead, over the next several years, Lange learned to trust his own instincts. “Be vulnerable. Be the person you are meant to be, not a regurgitation of the person you were taught by,” he says, one of the many creative koans, perfect little brush strokes of insight that he dabbed here and there throughout the talk. “Beware of all recipes and rules.”
“How do you decide what to paint, and make a painting ring true and authentic?” a gentleman asks.
“Give it a personal connection,” Lange says. If, for example, you’re painting a room with a fireplace, make it the fireplace from your grandmother’s house. “Make it something that ignites your spirit,” he adds. “Then just keep working on it. If you put a thousand hours in it, who cares what the subject matter is, it’s good. You can’t hide human effort in it.”
In the back of the room, Lange points out a small, framed image of a cupcake with a big rock hovering above it. The painting was inspired by an incredible confectionary miracle of a cupcake that he bought at the bakery, “and I thought, ‘it’s just too perfect; what if it got smashed by a stone?’” So he juxtaposed the two objects—a dreamy sugar-puff treat and a heavy, threatening rock. “I’ve learned to make whatever my visual compass wants to make,” Lange says. “Be open to the truth at all times.”
This mix of audacity and authenticity is also the recipe for success of Robert Lange Studios, the gallery that Robert and his wife and fellow artist, Megan, opened fourteen years ago. “I was twenty-three and so naïve! Our goal was to run a gallery like an artist would want it to be run, not with a dealer’s agenda,” Lange explains. That means valuing and elevating the artist above treating art as a commodity. And for him and Megan, it also means selecting the artists (now numbering twenty-four) that they represent based on character as much as artistic merit. “They’ve got to be passionate and caring people who share our commitment to making art for the right reasons,” adds Lange. He and Megan also curate the gallery at The Vendue hotel, along with art director Emily Rigsby.
Their Queen Street gallery is a six thousand square-foot ode to the imagination, complete with a piano anyone is welcome to play, an indoor swing for swinging, and an interactive rock-stacking table. “We are SO open,” the door sign announces, and inside there’s zero sales pressure or pretension. Art, á la Robert Lange Studios, should be accessible, engaging, joyful. “Life is weird enough out there right now. It’s nice to experience something that offers some levity, to see something that feels positive and playful,” says Lange.
Which brings us back to Lange’s otter-in-a-bowl painting. He worked on it his first full day of the residency in the Sasanqua Spa—fueled by mimosas, chocolate croissants, and engaging conversation from onlookers—and then in his cottage. “The people were so interesting and interested. The experience over all was just wonderful,” he says.
“What should we title it?” Lange asked club members who’d drop by to gauge his progress. Plenty of suggestions were tossed around, but the final title ended up being one Lange thought of early on: The Kiowotter. As he learned years ago, sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. — S.H.