In a city blessed with more artists than spaces to show their work, repurposing restaurants to double as galleries makes sense. Stephen Lange has fashioned a career displaying his figurative watercolor paintings and collage wall hangings inside local businesses, including Ananda Hair Studio and a slew of local eateries.
“When I first moved here, I had spotty luck with local galleries,” says the Charleston-raised Lange, who lives in West Asheville with his wife Dawn and their two children. He showed for a while at Jacob’s Window on Broadway, until that gallery, like so many others here, slipped out of business. He says he received rumblings of interest from a major downtown art space during his time renting a riverside warehouse studio. But the encounter went nowhere, and then surging rents drove him out of that trendy district.
Lange has shown in Asheville at Ion Gallery (now defunct), 16 Patton and Wedge, and at the Biltmore Estate’s Festival of Flowers. Galleries in Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., have also hosted exhibits of his work. “But I’ve sold more out of restaurants than I ever have from galleries,” he says.
His luck turned at Ananda, where in 2003 he hung a show and gradually realized the situation’s symbiotic advantages—chief among them a captive audience.
“You have someone sitting in a hairstyling chair looking at a wall for 30 minutes—why not make use of that dual space, recycle someone’s experience?”
That show’s success gave him the green light from downtown Asian-fusion hotspot Doc Chey’s—where, he says, the restaurant’s red accent wall “was so empty, it physically hurt me to look at it.” Lange says he’d been “bugging [owners Brook Messina and Ellie Feinroth] for a long time” to let him transform that monochrome blankness.
In general, though, “I don’t just show up with some art,” he explains. Instead, using the graphic-design experience he gained at Winthrop College and during summer apprenticeships with his older brother, the late Atlanta artist T.L. Lange (youngest brother Jeff is also a collected painter), Stephen first brings in photos of his work. “I show how it will play off the restaurant’s interior. I try not to do anything that would be intrusive or take away from the setting.”
Messina and Feinroth finally bit, and Lange spiced up Doc Chey’s with abstract geometric collages in shades of orange and coffee. When those started selling quickly, he was paid to install a permanent exhibit there. “They catered to me,” he says.
Significantly, the restaurant did not ask Lange to sign an exclusivity contract preventing him from showing his art elsewhere in the region—a common practice at what he calls “some of the main galleries in Asheville that hog up all of the spotlight.” He knows, he says, because one of them—the same one, in fact, that had years ago left him dangling—finally approached him seriously about his work, thanks to the wall hangings on view at Doc Chey’s. Lange also learned that the gallery doubled the work’s price so it could exact half the profits.
He took a breath—and he turned them down, he says. Showing in eateries instead of art spaces, “I get a good sale every month, sometimes two or three, and I don’t have to pay anybody anything,” he points out. “When a painting sells, I ask the buyer how they got in touch with me—whether it was a server, the owner, whoever it was who helped them. And I give that person 20 percent of the sale.”
Such imaginative reciprocity not only spreads good karma, it helps Lange provide for his family. The artist has bartered down the price of his displayed canvases at caterer/deli 28806 in return for food. He escapes studio rent by using the basement at another West Asheville restaurant, Lucky Otter, where he also works an hourly job and shows his figurative paintings—among them a galactic rendering of himself and his children that evokes the best sort of mid-century comic book.
When upscale-Rasta joint Nine Mile opened in Montford this summer, Lange was commissioned to augment the restaurant’s brooding, loungey atmosphere. Nine Mile co-owner Aaron Thomas, a former Lucky Otter manager, wanted to try out his new menu on Lange and his family before the restaurant’s official opening.
“He said, ‘Oh, and bring along some art, too,’” Lange recounts. In due time, Nine Mile’s interior was finished with a series of darkly glittering half-suns—a pair of Lange’s spherical wall hangings cut in half. The circles’ interiors are prisms of dyed cotton accented with bright strips of vinyl tape that Lange scavenges from local sign shops.
At Two Spoons ice-cream shop in West Asheville, a similar wall hanging, “Emme-Ya,” enjoys a primo spot all its own. While most of Lange’s collages exhibit subtle tickings of the same hue, this fun piece is sprinkled with vinyl bits in a contrasting shade of hot orange. Cone-licking kids can frequently be seen pointing at the work. And in fact, Lange says he started experimenting with the vinyl tape “because I had a little girl and I wanted her to learn her colors.”
Imbued with great seriousness, Lange’s artist’s statement is more of a multitasking manifesto. “Our society,” he tells Xpress, “has gotten too specialized. People get dressed up to go to an art gallery, do their time there, and then go do something else.” He’d rather see life and art blended, collage-like.
“Wherever there are people gathering or making merry, that’s going to be my gallery.”
Check out Stephen Lange’s paintings and wall hangings at Lucky Otter, Two Spoons, Doc Chey’s, Nine Mile and 28806, or at www.langeart.com.