Richard Purdy

Galerie Christiane Chassay

Winding its way through the space here like some kind of neomythical snake, Richard Purdy’s Progeria Longaevus, 1989, comprises a 365-foot scroll of handmade paper whose copious illustrations in gouache form a metaphorical chain of being. Purdy’s creation, through meticulous documentation, manipulates real history, both Asian and Western. Looking at the details, the cartoonlike drawings, we sometimes sense a greater authenticity in Purdy’s ephemeral reproductions of cultural artifacts than in actual historic documents, so persuasive are his visual fictions. There are long passages depicting the crusades, the plague years, topographies, natural disasters, and medieval city plans.

The central fictional character of Progeria Longaevus, whose life is depicted in the scroll, is a figure born in Venice in 992 A.D. who acquires a rare disease that reinforces his immune system (the inverse of AIDS). As a result he lives 1000 years, during which time he assumes 208 identities, of which only three are now known—those of Ordelafio Falier Doge (1090–1106), Theophrastus Paracelsus (1530–1541) and Carlo Adam Jerusalem Corlet, his last incarnation. This mysterious figure traverses cultures and historic epochs at will. He meets Dante and Leonardo, performs as a troubador, marches with Tambourlaine to Russia, goes on the crusades, and visits the site of one of Purdy’s previous cultural fictions, a medieval city known as Corpus Christi. While staying in a Tibetan monastery he overcomes his greatest hindrance, his accumulated memory, and learns the ability to forget. Toward the end of his life, he travels to North America, survives the sinking of the Titanic, and, after a stay in New York City, spends his last days in a nursing home on the West Coast. As he falls into senility, he begins to speak Middle English and other older languages. The old man is quite incapable of using modern devices such as telephones and record players. His clumsiness with these is a paraphrase for the way that technology has changed the way we view reality: by relying on mimeographic and mimetic visual and aural recording and transmitting systems, we have begun to lose the ability to tell stories, to recount personal experience. The character finally dies in 1992 while watching The Price Is Right on TV.

There is more to Purdy’s juggling of historical fact than meets the eye. Progeria Longaevus goes beyond Cartesian dualism and Western linear, Pythagorian conceptions of time. His work also reinterprets non-Western approaches to time, becoming a kind of personal, arbitrary mythology. Suspended on more than 2000 threads and spotlit throughout the gallery space, this extended metaphor for the unity and completeness of individual existence comes across as both humorous and hopeful. Through all of his meanderings, his brilliant manipulations of fact, Purdy makes us wonder if, in fact, it may be mythology which guides our sense of reality and culture, moving mankind toward its future in spite of scientific discovery.

John K. Grande