On ViewSperone Westwater
September 11 – October 24, 2015
Entering the main gallery of Sperone Westwater, the viewer is dwarfed by Red Gravity (2015), a stunning, two-story-high, circular red clay drawing filling the height and width of the main wall. A suspended glass balcony allows the viewer to see the top half, which enhances the work’s scale. Made with clay and water, the giant circle bears the marks of the artist’s fingers, and the surrounding spatters attest to the artist’s quick energetic process. Since River Avon Mud Circle (1982), Richard Long has been making similar wall drawings. Much has been written about his art’s grounding in direct contact with nature, the solitary activity of walking, his success in bringing outside inside, and his role in what Lucy Lippard called the “dematerialization of art.” The work’s simplicity and transcendental spiritualism have been discussed, referencing Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Like the ancient Chinese literati, Long has perfected an art form over time through repetition.
For this reviewer, there is another factor that explains the profound impact of Long’s work. Long’s postcards of Silbury Hill, and walks on Windmill Hill—a place where England’s first inhabitants made alterations in the landscape—offer up a clue. We are deeply moved by Long’s work because we glimpse a time “before the fall,” returning to the source of human development when man enjoyed a seamless relationship with nature. We are currently in the midst of the largest mass extinction since the Ice Age, and there is something calming about Long’s work that is seated in unspoiled nature. His photograph and text work, Windmill Hill to Coalbrookdale (1979)—the birthplace of the industrial revolution—ends with no photos of rusted machine parts or industrial waste arranged in a line. Some of the few human references in Long’s work are handprints, like the Mud Hand Circles (1984), reminiscent of our Neanderthal ancestors handprints made of red ochre. There is poetic simplicity, strength, and primal innocence in this work.
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a 3D voyage into Chauvet’s rarely visited interior, also takes us into this realm. The cave-art era occupies a section of the timeline six times longer than the period from the Egyptian Old Kingdom to the present. Our bit, especially the last three hundred years, has certainly not been a model for sustainability. What Jean Gebser calls the “aperspectival” world, a time of the tribal “we” and the anonymous “one,” forms the subterranean layer of our consciousness. Both Long and Herzog ask us to travel back to our human origins, and think about what we have lost with our technical frenzy. In an art world fueled by rampant narcissism and materialism, Long’s work provides relief and hope. Stones are placed and forgotten; the materials belong to no one. Although Long assured me he does hit a pub for a beer en route, or take advantage of the odd hotel, we imagine ourselves trekking alongside.
Crescent to Cross (2014) is a “road walk” from the Great Mosque of Córdoba in Andalusia to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. A wall-text graphic on the gallery wall replaces photo documentation of the walk, a device he has used before. For Long, the photograph and the text have equal weight. We think of T. E. Lawrence’s lonely treks to crusader castles in Arabia, or Sir Richard Burton’s pilgrimage to Mecca—fellow Englishmen who also walked from Orient to Occident. Long’s was not the historical pilgrimage route with bronze pavement plaques and flea-ridden hostels at allotted segments; he simply drew his own line on the map. The wall-text graphic on the gallery’s upper balcony is the sole souvenir of this journey. We have no record of his thoughts along the way; his only agenda seems to have been traversing these points as others have done before. The wall text functions like a Rorschach inkblot: we are left to fill in the experience with our own imagination. With the current refugee crisis we are again seeing the Muslim east walking west into Christian Europe. For a non-political artist, a certain poignant synchronicity has occurred.
Two works on the gallery’s upper floors, Half Moon (2015) and Red Slate Line (2015), are made with beautiful dark red slate from upper New York State. It is the color of the slate that makes them especially memorable. Long started using pointed stones standing on end in works like Standing Stone Circle as far back as 1982, and line works on gallery floors date back to his art school days. Long has said that if you have a good idea it is worth keeping, and these works prove this to be true. In an art world obsessed with yearly trends, it is nice to see an old master like Richard Long bucking them. Half Moon completes this exhibition and makes the viewer again think of the crescent, but a crescent from New York State’s geological time. The visual trek with Long through time and terrain is certainly worth the trip.