New York

Richard Long

Richard Long brings to his gallery installations something of the severity, suppleness, and mystery of the wilderness that is the setting for the large-scale projects for which he is better known. His recent works on plywood, which function both as painting and sculpture, are a minimalist synthesis of contrasting elements. Physically weighty, they are floated off the walls they hang from, their sturdiness a counterpoint to the mortal fragility of their natural surfaces. With elementary monochrome geometrical shapes painted on the raw plywood in gestural strokes of china clay and river mud, these works are at once refined and raw. Their austere formal simplicity belies an almost guarded yet nonetheless resonant quality, a timorous discretion that reflects our most profound experience of the wild.

Emerson once wrote, “Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part.” One gets the impression that for Long there is sentience in the materials he presents, that earth and element somehow feel his touch. Many works memorialize a tactile encounter: This is especially apparent in the pieces of driftwood that feature carefully applied rows of fingerprints made of the same natural colorings used in the plywood paintings. What’s clear is a reverence for material and medium, an apparently sensuous affection in which pigment and wood become flesh.

13th Street Paths (all works 2004) is comprised of three long, slightly crooked parallel plywood “streams” laid across the floor of the gallery. This site-responsive work mimics the paths each of us takes as we navigate our diverse ways down a city sidewalk, or perhaps the rivulets of water on a rain-streaked window. Such arresting allusions point up our affinity with nature and our inherent if subconscious connection to each other. 13th Street Ellipse is one of Long’s signature works in stone. Here, shardlike slabs of red and green-blue slate stand thickly grouped in a graceful oval. Their gorgeously swirling surfaces encourage us to imagine diving into or in some way merging with the slate, which retains the flush of its origins and again seems more like living tissue than anything inert.

Long’s work marks a mystical absorption in the natural world, inspiring contemplation of our culture’s increasing estrangement from the Arcadian vision, and the cost of our substitution of the virtual or synthetic for the more protean if perilous mysteries of the unmediated cosmos. Holderlin wrote, “where danger lies, / Grows that which saves.” It is our own needful contact with the vital wild that speaks most powerfully in Long’s work, in which stone and wood function much as “power objects” do in shamanism: as totems of a universal consciousness, of the munificence of the natural, austere, and ferine, soliciting our devotion with terror and infinite beauty.

Tom Briedenbach