Romanticism Can Go Take a Hike
By the time this article is published, British artist Richard Long will be doing what he likes best--walking alone in the wilderness. Occasionally, as his spirit and the landscape move him, he will construct a sculpture of natural materials, photograph it, then continue on his way. Or he may simply store up the experience and translate it into a work that brings some of the outdoors, and his reaction to it, into his next museum or gallery show.
An internationally renowned artist who represented his country at the Venice Biennale in 1976 and won the Turner Prize for his contribution to British art in 1989, Long is best known for installing massive rings and bands of stone on museum floors, and for applying watery mud to walls in geometric shapes with lyrical nuances. But he probably spends more time walking formidable distances all over the world than in the galleries that clamor to show his work.
When he agreed to create a new body of work in situ for his current exhibition at Griffin Contemporary in Venice--his first solo show in Southern California in a decade--Long planned to spend only a few days at the gallery, followed by a full two weeks in the High Sierra. And that is exactly what has happened.
He flew to Los Angeles and produced his entire show during a 2 1/2-day marathon. “It’s a bit off the cuff,” he said in an interview at the gallery, “but I brought my sensibility with me.” He also brought the essence of his painting medium, a chunk of dry mud from his “home river,” the Avon, which runs through Bristol, his lifelong residence. Jerry Sohn, a Los Angeles-based artists’ assistant and project facilitator, provided Long with other natural materials he requested. And the pristine little gallery was transformed in record time.
The exhibition is called “Two Thousand Fingerprints,” in reference to the new year and to one of the works, a spiral wall piece composed of 2,000 muddy fingerprints. Two large arrangements of petrified wood are installed on the floor, while about 30 mud-fingerprint works on wood hang on the gallery’s white walls.
“It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” Long said, surveying his work in the gallery and mentally placing it in the context of his 30-year career. Then he took off for the mountains. Carrying a tent, winter bedroll, crampons, camera and film, dehydrated food, water and other necessities, he planned a two-week walk from Whitney Portal along the John Muir Trail.
If the trip sounds a bit daunting for a 54-year-old, gray-haired product of British art schools, bear in mind that Long’s resume of artistic foot travel includes erecting a sculpture on Mt. Kilimanjaro, covering a 560-mile stretch of Portugal and Spain in 20 1/2 days, hiking to the 18,855-foot summit of Mt. Orizaba in Mexico and a six-day trudge through the Sahara Desert--not to mention walking thousands of miles on various jaunts throughout Britain.
He is far from the first artist to draw inspiration from nature, but his work has little to do with the tradition of landscape painting. “There’s a certain perception that artists who work with the landscape are romantic. I don’t agree with that,” said Long, who considers himself a realist.
“The art world--museums, galleries, artists, critics--operates mainly in cities,” he said. “That’s the way things are done, the way it works. But there’s another reality that I can tuck into.”
Books about Long characterize that reality as a personal odyssey, a self-portrait or a meditation on his relationship to nature. The artist describes his own work as “making my mark on the world,” whether he’s arranging a stone circle in a remote meadow or pressing a mud-dipped finger on a gallery wall.
But there’s much more to his art than that, as Long acknowledges. One of the subtleties he loves is bringing together different elements. Mud is a mixture of water and stone, while petrified wood combines the qualities of wood and stone, he said. Long also enjoys posing contrasts. The wall piece “Two Thousand Fingerprints” compresses time; on the floor directly below it, “Circle of Petrified Wood,” composed of spruce, cottonwood, locust and redwood, embodies the huge expanse of geological time, he said.
“Another aspect of my work is that it has a microcosmic side and a macrocosmic side,” Long said. His bold, geometric forms are easy to grasp, but they encompass myriad details in texture and color. “It’s probably too obvious to say, but the fingerprints are rather like snowflakes in their cosmic variety. I could make them all my life and each one would be different,” he said.
Unlike some artists who change subject matter, material and approach abruptly and repeatedly, Long has developed a continuum that encompasses a compatible variety of formats, ranging from landscape photographs with poetic, documentary text to broad pathways of footprints and string-of-pearl-like loops of fingerprints. “I like to think that my parameters--time, distance, space, walking, simple materials--are rich enough to keep the continuum going,” he said.
Despite the underlying continuity of his work, Long doesn’t hesitate to deviate from the norm--just as he often wanders off course on his walks. Asked about an atypical wood and mud piece, in which fingerprints are scattered rather than lined up in a row, he said it was inspired by wormholes in the wood. “There’s an element of opportunism in my work. I like to take advantage of chance,” he said.
Looking back over his career, Long said he never decided to become an artist; it’s just what he is. And, to hear him tell it, the whole thing evolved quite naturally--with the support of his parents and teachers, in a town that’s conveniently located by a muddy river.
Born in Bristol on June 2, 1945, Long said his earliest memories of making art include throwing stones into water and playing in the mud along the Avon River, which rises and falls dramatically with the tides. But he also had a remarkable aptitude for drawing and painting that was recognized and rewarded in elementary school. At home, when his parents redecorated and peeled off old wallpaper, they left a bare wall so that he could paint a mural.
Long studied at West of England College of Art in Bristol from 1962-65 and at St. Martin’s School of Art in London from 1966-68. While redefining sculpture with his fellow students at St. Martin’s--including Hamish Fulton, Jan Dibbets and the team of Gilbert & George--Long became involved with the emergence of Land Art, a revolt against formal art-making that led artists to work directly in nature.
Influenced by his art school experiences and the British tradition of walking, Long began taking epic hikes and developing a distinctive art form based on his interaction with nature. Unlike some of his American counterparts who displace large sections of land, Long works with a light touch--leaving a line in grass by walking back and forth or simply laying out a circle of stones.
His show in Venice is his first of the new millennium, but several other projects are coming up, he said. An exhibition of his photo-and-text works is about to open at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, and two shows are scheduled to open in early April at Sperone Westwater and James Cohan galleries in New York. He is also planning a series of photo-and-text pieces--possibly using images from his walk in the Sierra--that will appear on New York subway cars.
But perhaps the most intriguing project on Long’s horizon is an installation for the May opening of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London, a huge new museum that will transform the former Bankside Power Station on the Thames. Long’s project is to create a horizontal, rectangular mud piece on a long wall facing one of Claude Monet’s paintings of waterlilies. Long doesn’t know who came up with the notion of juxtaposing one of his splashy mud abstractions with an Impressionist painting, but he likes the idea.
“It gives people pause for thought, doesn’t it?” he asked. Then he grinned and offered his own reaction: “It gives me pause for thought.”
“RICHARD LONG: TWO THOUSAND FINGERPRINTS,” Griffin Contemporary, 915 Electric Ave., Venice. Dates: Through March 4. Hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: (310) 452-1014.