Richard Long at The Lisson Gallery
As a long admirer of Richard Long’s work I was delighted to see that he has two new exhibitions open at the moment. Prints 1970- 2013 is on at the New Art Gallery Walsall until June 22nd and Richard Long is on at the Lisson Gallery London until July 12th.
The Lisson Gallery is an ideal place to show Long’s work. It has large odd shaped spaces and a hard contemporary feel that allows his work the breathing space it deserves. Although small, this exhibition has a large slate floor work, three exciting new text-works, some large clay and mud wall works and many new photographs, so most of the aspects of Long’s recent work is on display. If you don’t know Long’s work this small exhibition is a good place to start.
The first room is entirely taken up with a floor work. Four Ways 2014, Delabole slate from Cornwall, consists of dark jagged cut slate pieces standing on end and forming a cross. Looking along the lines of slate they made me think of the New York skyline with knife-edge buildings cutting into the sky. There is something both mechanical and of the natural world, in the smooth machine cut edges and the rough-hewn dark Cornish slate. I caught a whiff of cathedrals in this space, of damp and mustiness and age as if something very ancient had been cut out of the Cornish landscape to be carefully looked at inside. I also felt there was a sadness to the piece which surprised me as I had never felt this before about Long’s work. When I mentioned this to the artist he said: ‘that is typical of a psychoanalyst’, and he is probably right – a projection of feelings onto solid matter.
It is however, what this artist makes me feel, that fascinates me. How does the placing of stones or pieces of wood or swirled mud on a wall elicit such strong reactions? It is as if Long has taken the matter of the earth and shown us that it is part of us and enabled us to see and feel our relationship to this visceral moving planet that we live on.
Long’s mud and clay works are some of Long’s work I admire the most. There are a couple of large works in this exhibition which each take up a wall. Here the dripped clay and mud has been turned on its side so that gravity appears to obey a new law of the horizontal rather than the vertical. This is the first time I have seen him use linen on plywood as a base rather than the wall itself. This inevitably has the advantage that they can have a life that is longer than the exhibition. Some of his most beautiful wall works in galleries, such as the amazing ones he did for his large exhibition at The Tate in 2009, were painted out after the exhibition was over. There are also some delightful small dripped River Avon mud works on paper, which have a mesmerizing effect as they appear to defy gravity all together and flow upwards towards the top of the frame.
The most dramatic new departure seems to be in the photographs, some of which show no work in the landscape but are glimpses of the artist’s lonely camps in the Antarctic, a solitary tent or a few footprints in the snow. Antarctica Footprints shows a desolate white flat landscape with a few black rocks on the horizon. Swirling out as if they were rays from a sun are words drawn onto the surface of the print as if the words are trying to inform us as to what this experience might be like; snowblocks, prehistory, provisions, mythmaking, simplicity, scattering, perfection, visibility. We do not see the footprints or tracks trodden on the snow but we are invited to enter the artist’s imagination as to what being in the Antarctic might be like. I was intrigued by this melding of text -work and photo, as it requires the beholder to enter the snowy space through both image and word and to supply the footprints ourselves.
Another of the large photos named, Engadine Line 2013, shows a circle of stones at the base of a chain of snowy mountains, with white clouds drifting above the mountain-tops. It is a stunningly beautiful photograph with an enigmatic yet moving sculpture of chunks of the natural rock placed by the artist. The text in pencil under the photo states: ‘A 16 day walk in the lower Engadine from Tschlin to Zuoz.
There is a lyrical quality to Long’s work which often defies description. When these photographs of sculptural works, which are made on walks, really move me, it is often because there is a meeting in them of the artist’s body in both space and time. We are aware of the effort this has taken, the careful positioning of the rocks or stones in relation to the environment and then the ‘decisive moment’, as Cartier Bresson called it, when everything comes together and all the elements of the photo speak and interact with each other. Long is a past master of this technique. Although there are very rarely people in his photos, he treats the natural world as a moving world where maybe for a second a cloud or a shadow is in the right place for him.
You cannot go away from this exhibition without being affected by something, maybe a drip of mud, or a single rock or the way in which fifteen words are placed on top of each other to form a pyramid of concrete poetry. Richard Long’s work returns again and again to his fascinations with nature, with the earth and with our impact on it and love for it. He is unaffected by the machinations of the art world or the vagaries of contemporary art. He is entirely his own man and retains his independence from our digital, corporate and alienated world. Go See!
(If you are interested in Richard Long or would like to know more about him you might be interested in a book I have written about the artist. On the Track of Richard Long by Juliet Miller, was published on the 3rd July by Smokehouse Press. You will be able to order a copy through the Smokehouse Press Website or through this website. ) www.smokehousepress.co.uk