Robert Longo: Too Much Too Soon? : Ambitious exhibition details overwrought efforts of multimedia artist

Today, the County Museum of Art opens an ambitious survey exhibition of the multimedia New York artist Robert Longo. It is, by gallery standards, as spectacular as "The Phantom of the Opera" and as ominous as Darth Vader with its running theme of The Oppressive Society.

The rooms of the Anderson Building are haunted with images of guys in fistfights, writhing people that look like puppets with strings suddenly cut, embracing couples in devouring kisses and a blasted sci-fi monster who spins in mortal agony, part Terminator, part hussar of the Empire. The whole coercive atmosphere may be summed up by the sculpture, "Dumb Running"--stacks of gold-leafed drums that spin like The Trump Juggernaut.

Curator Howard Fox has written a clear and thoughtful catalogue essay in which, among other things, he finds in Longo a certain fascination with fascism to which the artist accedes. "Fascism isn't just dictatorial regimes," he says, "it's a way of thinking. And it doesn't just come in on leather jackets and motorcycles; it comes in on bumper stickers and television. Fascism is our visual culture."

If that is clearly an artistic overstatement, the exhibition is nonetheless a roundelay of manipulation. It decries a culture that maneuvers its citizens like so many widgets, then the art itself strong-arms the viewer into a state of creepy fascination not unlike watching the tainted Nazi-propaganda masterpiece, "The Triumph of the Will." Longo uses bannerlike boffo red panels and inflammatory imagery like a huge halved death-head flanking a forced-perspective hallway that looks very much like an Albert Speer Corridor of Power.

Once the artist has accused the culture of manipulating us, then turned around and manipulated us himself, we see that he is perhaps most manipulated of all--apparently entirely molded by the monstrous fiction of reality created by The Media. Like the image of life painted by newspaper headlines, television, film and advertising, the art is both overwrought and heartless.

At 36, Longo is among the most widely publicized, exhibited and collected artists of the decade along with the likes of Cindy Sherman (an old girlfriend), David Salle and the rest of the gang from Cal-Arts. (Longo did not go there but was influenced by its aesthetic.) His ambition is of the scale of Anselm Keifer or Julian Schnabel, and yet even those who travel widely to look at art can only know the work from commercial gallery exhibitions or impressive installations in cavernous international Kunsthallen because, up to now, that's all there's been.

A quick spin through the galleries is enough to explain Longo's success. The billboard-scale work has enough graphic flash to entertain an audience smart enough to understand Robo-Cop or an MTV tape plus enough intellectual implication to cause critics of the deconstructivist school to nod conspiratorially. Those who validate their art through its references to the past will be comforted by seeing that one of Longo's relief sculpture is modeled on Michelangelo's "Battle of the Centaur's" and anybody abreast of recent art will find it resonates forward from Rauschenberg to Rosenquist.

Larry Rivers' frank exhibitionism echoes in Longo. He is nothing if not multifaceted. The exhibition frontispiece "Hum: Making Ourselves" is a flaming fan of multicolored plastic wires. It looks like an abstraction until we see that each wire is plugged into a background that is like a switchboard and the work becomes a symbol of the New Yorker's obsession with making it through "connections."

Longo makes them all over the place. A confessed media junkie, he is far from shy about seeking publicity (he uses a PR firm), watches TV constantly as he works and frequents Manhattan's art movie houses. One work here was inspired by "Missouri Breaks," another by a figure in a Fassbinder film. Longo played in several rock bands and produced performances and video pieces.

A selection of the tapes is on view with the exhibition (to Dec. 31). Nearly indistinguishable from ordinary MTV, they are nonetheless interesting in their contrast to the paranoid billboard style of his straight artwork. The tapes tend to be sentimental and visually centerless. His major performance works will be staged Friday and Saturday at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Longo has confessed that his real ambition is to make mainstream movies, and word has it that he's recently signed a contract. All this entrepreneurial urge recalls, of course, Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, Longo's chutzpah is boundless and like Warhol he makes an art that deals entirely in cliches.

There is a difference. Warhol's Pop could be funny, touching or sinister. Longo's deals almost exclusively in social paranoia--Apocalyptic Pop. Certainly apt in these neo-conservative times, it resonates from writings as esoteric as those of the French thinker Jean Baudrillard to films as obvious as "The Empire Strikes Back." As a kind of deadpan giant political cartoon, it is sort of interesting. There is still, however, a distinction between timely social commentary and art.

The show focuses first on his trademark "Men in the Cities" series, circa 1980. These are the familiar life-size drawings of conventionally dressed men and women in odd, tortured stances that have baffled most observers who want them to be either absurd dance postures or the writhings of people who have just been shot or suffered strokes. They are, of course, both. They are Dante's falling angels and humanity doing the medieval danse macabre . They recall nothing so much as the final scene in Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." More recently, they may have provided inspiration for Robert Palmer's tape "Simply Irresistible." The bulk of Longo's work would fit neatly into the traditional categories of the memento mori or vanitas picture, reminding us that all life's tinsel and glitter comes to dust.

Artistically, they are not entirely uninteresting. Longo makes sure the mainly black clothing is rendered as dense, disturbing abstract shapes. But once he'd planned the compositions he called in a professional illustrator to fill in the detail. The result is an emotionally dead surface that behaves exactly like advertising--it wants to provoke a reaction without revealing its own. If we look at a Manet, Van Gogh or Picasso when we are emotionally neutered, for some reason the work continues to have a life of its own. If we dumb out on a Longo it dumbs right back at us like a TV with the sound off.

Longo likes to say, "My generation of artists was rushed prematurely to the front."

That is certainly true and undoubtedly accounts for both the intellectual callowness, provincial SoHo mentality and frantic Big Apple energy of the work. Longo was just 28 when he was launched into dubious celebrity with an exhibition at the influential Metro Pictures gallery. That may be an age when it works to become an athletic rock star, but artists traditionally bear a heavier cultural responsibility. At 28, a guy may have a great many unformed ideas and ambitions coupled with a consciousness that he does not really yet know exactly who he is.

The too-much-too-soon syndrome provides a plausible hypothesis to account for Longo's scattered artistic interests and the emotional neutrality of the work. We cannot tell from looking whether its virtual obsession with power, hostility, antagonism, repression, fame and money represent aspects of the society that the artist finds repellent or a personal psychology that finds them fascinating. He is said to be intensely interested in the American Civil War. It might symbolize fractured social forces or act as a metaphor of a spiritual struggle within the artist.

Which is, in a way, none of our business. What is our business is the aesthetic effect of the work. In the large "Master Jazz" we see juxtaposed billboard-style images of two distraught Caucasian males, a looming dark skyscraper, a screaming black man and a young woman either sleeping or dead. A movie-intrigue aura around the work insists we invent a story to go with the pictures and virtually invites a few racist thoughts in anyone so inclined.

If we have such a reaction--or any other--the artist is nowhere to be seen in the substance of the work to either confirm or deny the scenario. The work is so lacking in empathy that we feel mistrustful and had by the art.

In the end, this talented and trendy work does remind us of an art of the past. It recalls the 19th-Century French academic art recently revived at Paris Musee d'Orsay. There is even a Gerome sculpture that strongly resembles Longo's dying alien warrior. It was an art that struck moral postures, scolding about the Romans of the Decadence while delivering forbidden thrills 'n chills.

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