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

October 01, 1989|WILLIAM WILSON

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.

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