Walking Man

Richard Long treads lightly on the earth -- and his audience's imagination

Walking in populated regions such as Turkey, Long has explained in interviews, he regularly meets other people; at other times, on other walks, he's completely isolated. But his work doesn't deal with this mixed reality. Instead, it consistently plays out a fantasy of pristine, untrammeled nature -- in it, we never encounter another human being. Long's romanticism is further revealed in his insistence on the value of the artist's touch, a stance in direct opposition to the factory-made minimalist art that preceded him. The mud paintings on CAM's walls, where every "see, I got my hands dirty" gesture is evident, are particularly precious, in part because Long likes to talk about the unthinking, spiritual state that engenders his best work. The graceful splashes of mud that spray off the perfectly formed arcs are skillfully designed to look nice while "proving" that Long's practice is so authentically consuming that he can't help but be messy.

Though Long is an environmental artist, among the most puzzling aspects of his work is the way the landscape figures into it. On the one hand, Long has made a point of journeying to the far corners of the Earth. On the other hand, the sites themselves never seem to make much difference to him. His environment impacts him only on the most physical level. He may orient a line of rocks toward a particular mountain top, or use the materials at hand, but for nearly 30 years his basic vocabulary of lines and circles hasn't changed. Having chosen forms that to him exhibit the essentially human concept of abstract geometry, he wants to recreate them everywhere, as if repetition will enable him to absorb their simplicity and universality. As a result, his audience tends to feel more jet-lagged than impressed.

In his journeys, Long does not interpret or explain "otherness" for us. Rather, he invokes the mystique of the exotic without truly engaging it. In view of that, it seems inevitable that Long has found himself vulnerable to accusations of neocolonialism. Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen, with his biting satires Arctic Circle (a ring of wine bottles referring to the alcoholism endemic among Native Americans on reservations) and White Line Through Africa (a line of bones arranged as Long might arrange pieces of driftwood), is just one of the many artists who have referenced Long's work. But to accuse Long of imperialism is a bit extreme -- he's too much a navel-gazer to be bothered with such notions.

In fact, Long's work is not only apolitical, it is acultural and ageographical. In his constant creation and dismantling, it becomes even, like nature itself, ahistorical. It returns to the most rudimentary art practice -- that of our Neolithic cousin who gathered stones when the spirit moved him. Circles, cycles, mud and stones: Long is our tightlipped tour guide to a natural world in which life and art have no need to be historically inventive, permanent or complex. The trouble is, this austere, generic landscape exists only in the artist's careful creations. It's no wonder he spends so much time walking in circles -- out there, there's not much else to do.

"Richard Long: Circles Cycles Mud Stones" will be on display through June 30 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 526-0773.

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