Brian Longe

Klein Gallery

In general one resists the constraints of regionalism, but sometimes one has to admit the shared characteristics of artists from a particular geographical area. It comes as no surprise that the brilliantly colored landscapes of Brian Longe are made in California. Even Longe’s interest and involvement with Oriental mysticism can be linked to a West Coast sensibility. But his picturesque visions are not representations of the California coast, and although they generally include sky, a mountain range, and a pool, this is really to do with a correspondence between three elements. All the imagery depends on Longe’s fusing of logical, quasi-scientific ideas with intuition. The notion of producing a fictional landscape in a geography of gorgeous landscape is intriguingly perverse.

Longe uses a variety of shaped canvases and wooden panels in this series of paintings, but despite differences in proportion and scale, they always follow the same prism format, a rectangle with a triangular protrusion on the right. The artist further divides the space horizontally and vertically, partitioning it into facets for his landscapes “crystalized in a time chamber,” to use his phrase. Where the conventional easel painting seems to act as a window on reality, the prism signals Longe’s intention to develop a fictional topography, a place nowhere in the real world but in an imagined realm, like James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. In Land’s End and Sierra Oriental, both 1984, Longe wedges in another plane with another landscape painted on it, a picture within a picture projecting out from the base of a mountain range. A device allowing Longe to fabricate visionary images rather than images from vision, his "chamber’’ becomes the source of his imagery and the subject of his paintings. It also succeeds formally, organizing neat compartments for different areas of the composition.

The metaphor of the optical chamber also provides a rationale for investigations of light, which typically carves the sides of crusty peaks with a unique palette whose strengths are evident in the ranges of turquoise. Although these representational scenes are fairly similar, Longe’s tendency toward repetition is mediated by his convincing handling of a combination of different media—oil, encaustic, and acrylic. Longe applies oils with thick expressionistic strokes which flicker around the mountains, while his acrylic paintings show a looser, more direct technique in which the surface shows through. These transparent works, like Hothouse and Monastery, both 1984—the latter a giant canvas with an unnatural color scheme of pink and green—were the most successful paintings in the exhibition, since their facture worked in counterpoint to the geometry of their frame.

Nevertheless, Longe’s device risks becoming a formula, simultaneously overdetermined and exhausted. But a way out appears in some of the least illusionistic paintings, those in which a stylized black shape appears, a comma or funnel as tall as Longe’s mountains. These quirky intruders could be surrogates for figures, and even for the artist, as an admission of his overt role in inventing these pictorial stages. They might allow Longe to drop the rigidity of his self-imposed system and just paint—maybe even to shift from an idealized, unreal space, abstracted rather than abstract, to a particular place. Perhaps because there were 16 paintings in this exhibition the topography began to look less and less spiritual and more generic. Longe’s painterly intelligence is most evident when he works in pure fantasy, disobeying his own rules of contained visions and giving in to spontaneous, even idiosyncratic expressions. I had the sense that the artist’s vision would be more compelling if he were just to represent what he felt rather than painting the idea of perception.

Judith Russi Kirshner