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Walking Man

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

In one of Rice professor (and Art Forum critic) Thomas McEvilley's oft-given lectures, he speculates that the earliest known art-making consisted of piling rounded stones in a heap. Because we can't determine the material purpose of these piles of stones, McEvilley's argument goes, it's plausible to conclude that they represent the first aesthetic activity of our species, the prototypical example of human ordering, design and play.

A pile of stones isn't all that different from many of the sculptures of contemporary British artist Richard Long. Long is a walking man, and he considers his walks -- over the moors of Britain, the deserts of Africa, the mountains of India, the rim of the Arctic Circle -- his art. Along the way, he makes site-specific earthworks with the materials at hand, by tramping soil, clearing rubble or rearranging natural elements such as rocks to form lines and circles. He has plucked all the daisies from a straight swath of meadow, poured water on sand to make temporary drawings, marshaled small boulders into makeshift megaliths. To route his walks, Long often plots circles miles in diameter on a map. Sometimes he will traverse all the roads or waterways that touch a given circle, or simply tread its circumference. Just as a panther leaves a specific trail, so Long marks his terrain with geometric forms, as if to say that the most natural, recognizable characteristic of a human being is aesthetic creation. And indeed, for Long that spontaneous creation is more important than the resulting work, which he often dismantles before moving on.

Unlike the caveman assembling his piles, however, Long has the problems of a 20th-century artist to contend with. The question of how to translate his ephemeral work into a gallery display is central among them. "Circles Cycles Mud Stones," the Contemporary Arts Museum's exhibit of Long's recent work, features a sampling of photographs and other documentation of his treks and resulting earth sculptures. It also includes a sculptural installation of the sort he has created in museums across the globe. These installations are "site specific" in that the pieces are created specifically for a museum's space, but they closely echo the work he does on his walks, making them a hybrid of documentation -- or, more accurately, representation -- and independent work. Another element of the exhibit is Long's silk-screened posters of words laid out in a simple typeface, notating his journeys. These pieces tend to read like the warm-up exercises of a sentimental nature poet. "A walk of 366 miles in 8 days ending at a midnight total eclipse of the full moon .... England 1996," one says. Others list the incidents of a walk in haiku-style phrasing: "Shadow of a cloud," "Purple," "Reading the map."

These simplistic statements point to a problem: no matter how sincerely contemplative Long may be during his walks, in a gallery, his work begins to seem romantically faux-primitive, as unappealing as a "sacred" ritual performed for paying tourists. To accommodate Long's installation, the CAM has removed the temporary walls that usually subdivide its upstairs gallery. The gallery is quiet and ceremonious, as if awaiting some druidic gathering, and on the bleached wooden floor of the open space Long has carefully laid out four rings the size of large campfire circles. Each is a separate sculpture -- one is made up of pieces of driftwood, one of flint and two of Texas sandstone. On two walls, he has applied reddish mud in gigantic arcs and circles. Long has said that his works on paper stimulate the imagination, while the sculptures and mud paintings, which will be dismantled after the show, nourish the senses. But both types of work are highly schematized and emotionally distant, seemingly more concerned with their own elegance than with nourishment or stimulation.

Long, a walker since childhood, began to do his walks-as-art in the late 1960s, about the time that American artists in search of a new canvas turned to the land as well. Sculptors such as Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty), Walter De Maria (Lightning Field) and later Christo (Surrounded Islands) made colossal earthworks that required teams of engineers, bulldozers, grand plans and lots of money. The contrast between their titanic manipulation of the landscape and Long's low-impact impulses would seem to cast the Englishman in the role of nature's sensitive steward. But if these other environmental artists use very different scales from Long, their goal is similar: to reorient humans to nature. In fact, the Americans' methods more accurately reflect and comment on the way modern society interacts with the land, while Long's idyllic jaunts, taking up the banner of 1930s British landscape artists, idealize a trouble-free relationship with nature. Though Long's walks are not performances for an audience, they are performed, and in them Long is the very image of the mythopoetic hero. His work conjures up a mental image of a solitary man, with naught but a rustic rucksack, playing primitive with Stone Age toys. (It doesn't help matters that the CAM exhibit includes a video of a walk by Long in the Sahara, complete with close-ups of his hiking boots.) One of Long's photos of a walk in Big Bend, "Carrying a Day's Water," shows the artist's unmanned pack and water bladder as Patagonia catalog-style signifiers of self-reliance.

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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