Los Angeles

Bert Long

L.A. Louver Gallery

The ’50s revival is becoming so ubiquitous that it’s beginning to seem as if the aura of that period has never left. The work of Bert Long, a painter/sculptor who lives and works in the small town of Shepherd, Texas, just outside of Houston, brings this point home. The images in Long’s recent paintings, from 1982 to ’87, demonstrate his continuing affection for the pretentious goofiness of a particular aspect of ’50s art: that whimsical juncture in the devolution of style that saw kitsch transformed into high camp, the Jungian archetype into a cocktail cliché, the Chagall bird into a corporate logo, and the violent Abstract Expressionist splash into the designer’s suave spatter.

The elaborate frames that surround Long’s images, however, exist in another stylistic universe altogether. They are extravagant funk/folk assemblages whose lighthearted and heavy-handed visual punning provides a streetwise gloss on the imagery of the paintings. The relationship between the two is one of text and context, the composite effect of which is, in most cases, genuinely funny and not a little poignant—something like Chuck Berry’s funky sensibility rifting off of a high-art image by Jasper Johns. In Evolution of Creativity, 1985, Long juxtaposes a seascape undergoing a volcanic eruption with images of a toothy grin, a floating eye, and a pair of hands. Splattered across the picture are heavy drips of paint that seem to be emanating, like blood, from the guts of the image, in an artsy gesture that is an allusion to a ’50s-style bastardization of Jackson Pollock’s surrealism (as in the latter’s Portrait and a Dream, 1953). Both silly and serious, too, are the 16 stuffed and paint-splattered gardener’s gloves that adorn the picture frame, a lowbrow representation of the artist’s main tool—his hand.

In a variation on this same motif, Search, 1987, shows a disembodied hand reaching out from a body of water (an image all too resonant with elevated Jungian, Mannerist, and Darwinian allusions to the quest for sexual, spiritual, and/or evolutionary fulfillment). This image is surrounded by what appears to be a cabinet door frame, complete with knob and lock, on the surface of which Long has collaged a variety of objects, including the kind of metal numbers that are used to identify an address on the front of a house, the rubber sole (soul?) of an old shoe, a pair of eyeglasses with protruding glass eyeballs, and a 1979 Texas automobile license plate reading “PRB * 246.” The license plate provides a succinct demonstration of Long’s droll and serious method of juxtaposing two corrupt languages (funk/folk and high kitsch) in hopes of generating one true one—in this case, a local “folk art” found object together with a witty reference to the monogram of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the initials used for a few years as a surrogate signature by the three founding members of the Victorian artists’ group, whose works are full of literary allusions and romantic escapist images).

It would be a mistake, however, to consider Long’s strategy as any kind of reflexive art-historical pastiche, since in context it is clear that Long is presenting us with an autobiographical vision, the synthetic approach of an artist who grew up in the ’50s, confronting the crafty pretentiousness of its high middlebrow artistic iconography amidst the off-hand funk of his everyday life and finding neither sufficient to his purposes.

Susan Freudenheim