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Long Life

The MFAH showcases autobiographical work by a Houston legend

In Bert Long's painting Ride the Tiger (2002), the artist depicts himself astride a tiger, naked save for a massive pair of eyeglasses. His long hair and beard flow behind him like a mane as the fiery tiger leaps through a vividly streaked sky. Instead of a hand, Long clings to the tiger with a hook. The tiger has the look of Asian kitsch embroidery, and its eyes stare out at the viewer with hypnotic power. You can't help but be drawn into the work's bright vivid colors, bold swaths of paint and surreal imagery. Surrounded by an equally dramatic frame daubed with color, it's the standout work in the exhibition "Out of the Life of Bert Long, Jr.," curated by his friend and fellow artist James Surls, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

The painting refers to Long's "ride the tiger" art career. The hook symbolizes handicap -- living the life of an artist and being African-American are among the many challenges Long has faced in life. Sometimes the biography of an artist overshadows the art; other times the art is so entwined with the life of an artist that the two become indistinguishable. In Long's case, his biography and his work are equally intriguing.

At six foot two and 250 (or so) pounds, Bert Long is a big bear of a man, and like his work, he's utterly unrestrained -- at turns funny, poetic and wildly opinionated. He creates paintings, installations, performances, photographs and sculptures made from found objects and from ice; he also once wrote and edited an art magazine. He has lived solely from his art since 1979, when, at the age of 39, he gave up a lucrative career as an executive chef.

Long's show at the MFAH showcases some of his best paintings. Like the rest of his art, they grew out of Long's experiences with travel, the art world, racism and his personal life. Most of the works have collaged elements, and Long's frames are heavily decorated and are as important as the paintings themselves. The Collector (1984-85) comments on the art world, showing a pursed-lipped woman in a big hat, the kind that wants pretty art to match her sofa. (Bert doesn't do "pretty.") The frame is gold-leafed and encrusted with fake pearls. Then there are intimate works such as Kidney Stone (1983-85). It has a rock-encrusted frame and depicts a massive boulder against the brown silhouette of a man. It's an elegant image that spikes gravitas with a dash of humor.

The show is by no means a retrospective of Long's large and eclectic body of work, but it makes you wish it were. Long is a talented artist and a fascinating character. The story of how he became an artist explains the gutsy individuality of his work.

Bert Long was born in the Fifth Ward in 1940. His father, who worked at Sheffield Steel, died after falling into a vat of molten metal when Long was three. He left Bert Jr., his two young siblings and a heavily pregnant wife behind. Long's mother worked as a maid making $4 a day; at an early age, Long began to help out, first picking cotton summers in Richmond, then, at 12, working at the Houston Club. According to Long, "There weren't any child labor laws then." When he left at age 19 to join the Marines, Long was the highest-paid back-room employee -- at $1.27 an hour.

Thanks to his experience in catering, Long wound up running the officer's club at Camp Delmar in Oceanside, California, where he amazed the brass with his ice sculptures. When he was discharged in 1965, Long went to Los Angeles and wound up as an executive chef of a chain of high-end restaurants. He married his childhood neighbor Connie Kelly in 1964, and they raised three children.

Stints as a culinary arts teacher in L.A., the proprietor of his own popular restaurant, Bert's Gourmet in Oregon, and executive sous chef at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas followed. It was in Vegas that he had his first art show, an exhibition of his paintings at MGM Grand Gallery. Wanting to play into the show business of being a chef in Vegas, Long's publicist had set up the show. With that experience, Long discovered what he really wanted to do -- be an artist. He gave his 30-day notice.

With his family in a travel trailer, Long made paintings and took them around to art fairs all over the country, sometimes trading paintings for groceries. He decided to make Houston his home base. His only art education had been with Mrs. Ladner at Phillis Wheatley High School; to encourage his talent, she'd let him do the seasonal bulletin boards. Now he set about reading everything he could about art history from the Houston Public Library.

Long was nothing if not determined. He'd heard about the Ebony magazine collection of African-American art, and he and his wife left the children with their grandmother in Houston and headed to the magazine's headquarters in Chicago -- in the dead of winter. They carried an eight-foot painting through brutal winds into the lobby of Ebony headquarters and called for the art director of the magazine. He came down and lectured Long about professionalism and appointments. Long, undaunted, said, "Well, I'm here now." He was unsuccessful. Unfazed, Long doesn't believe in appointments.

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