Los Angeles

Richard Long

Angles Gallery

Known for his melancholy treks across barren and remote landscapes, “earthworks” memorialized in stunning black and white photographs, Richard Long brings only traces of his wanderings to this exhibition, consisting primarily of mud “paintings” on paper. These images do not so much represent external ideas about nature as symbolize some higher transcendental truth.

Long literally domesticates and estheticizes nature. In fact, the only piece not decorously contained as a work on paper is the scatological Mississippi Mud Line (all works 1992)—swirls of mud smeared like adult finger-paints in a linear shape over a doorway. But even the calculatedly“disruptive” spatters along the wall down to the floor fail to lend the work any spontaneity, though the piece appears to be a bridge to Long’s previous ritualistic encounters with the natural landscape.

The mud-on-paper works are curiously formalist as well, denying their associative media—marbled surfaces of mud thinned with water—and mimicking the by now predictable formal symbologies of Modernist abstract painting (particularly those of Mark Rothko). In a series of medium-sized mud-paintings various kinds of paper are covered in a greenish-brown ooze, thinly caked into lacy rivulets like skeins of exposed nerves. These have a strong visual appeal as surfaces, but as a group they are repetitive. Abstracted into estheticized fields of neutral colors, they seem, paradoxically, to want to recall the purist Color Field painters—where color itself, saturating the unprimed canvas, “became” form. Long has marked many of these images with red Japanese seals as if to lend a borrowed aura of mystery to works otherwise so highly invested in Occidental traditions of painting.

Another group of paintings, made from Mississippi mud and handmade Japanese paper, resemble Morris Louises poured up from the bottom with white paper left blank at the top. Again, the delicately crusted surfaces of mud are patterned into tightly controlled sheets etched with trails of water, traces of a previous flow contained and reified into a visual image. Nine of these are spread across the walls of the room in which Mississippi Mud Line makes its desperate claim to creative chaos: the overall effect, consistent perhaps with Long’s pristine photographic renditions of what were certainly messy and sweaty hikes through the wilderness, is one of a chilly and overbearing formalism.

While overwhelmed with the reiterative flatness of these numerous images, one is also carefully sensitized to the different textures and viscosities of Mississippi mud. The thick webs of dirt take on a portentous value in relation to the delicate, and sometimes translucent, papers. The repetitious, two-dimensional formalism of the mud paintings, which produces a mesmerizing and calming effect, is broken by the Idaho Quartz Circle a variation on Long’s well-known circular floor pieces, here constructed of a ring of flat stones arranged to form an almost perfect external circumference on the floor.

In retrospect. Long’s desire to mark himself in the landscape and memorialize his presence in the compellingly stark photographs parallels the gripping control he exerts on Mississippi mud in these entirely gallery-oriented works. These pictures are, finally, exercises in the conversion of “nature” into the commodifiable art object—a process signaled by, yet also veiled in, the elegant photographs of his walks. In an era of severe environmental crisis, Long’s commitment to appropriating the rawness of the natural landscape and taming it into esthetic submission seems to reflect an indifferent, if not callously romanticizing, attitude toward the nature so reverently photographed in his “earthworks.”

Amelia Jones