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Romanticism Can Go Take a Hike

British artist Richard Long combines a love of walking in nature with use of elements such as mud, stone and wood to create a new reality.

February 06, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

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.

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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.

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