A Fitting Memorial for Bert Long

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If you can look on the bright side, this was some fortunate timing. The UAC Contemporary Art Gallery at Houston Baptist University was putting together a small show of Bert Long's work late last year when the Fifth Ward artist was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died a month later on February 1.

In what turned out to be one of his last acts as a Houston artist, Long wanted to show work that even his friends and collectors hadn't seen before. Given his two-inch thick resume, full of local shows and press clippings, that would pose quite the challenge, but the resulting show is one that's full of surprises and a fitting tribute to the beloved artist.

The 16 works on display were made within the last 30 years and include photographs of a trip to Cuba, paintings, sculpture and assemblage. One of the earliest works is "Persistence (Mums the Word)" (1983), a curious piece of mixed media that features an axe piercing black, stitched lips, while the word "art" is carved over and over again into the canvas board. The most recent work on display, completed in 2012, also has a dark edge to it. "Purgatory" prominently features the flashing neon words "Hell" and "Open," as subtle a message as a "Stop" sign.

The heaviest piece is "Dear John, Dear Vincent, Dear Pablo, Dear Bert," an overwhelming 400-pound clock that is a wall of boots, giant nails and broken glass. That's right. These oftentimes unsettling works can be literally dangerous if not handled properly. Long strove to be truthful in his work, and, like the truth, these pieces are not always pretty or neat.

One of the most prominent works in the show is "Quest," an assemblage displayed in the middle of the small gallery. The piece was initially found buried in the middle of Long's studio, and it looks like it has collected everything in there. A trunk has almost too many items to mention affixed to it -- an old credit card of Long's, a license plate, liquor bottles, an aged newspaper, rope, a toothbrush, a lit light bulb and a broken wine glass. The trunk is supported by two "legs," the feet wearing a white shoe and a black shoe each, and there's a steering wheel on the top. It looks like a walking time capsule, continually on the move.

Long's massive bound resume is also on display for your perusal. It's comprised of hundreds of pages that document his shows and press from the start of his art career up to 2008, providing an insight into his prominence in Houston's art community for those unfamiliar with his work. Of course, some of the best insight into his style will be right in front of you. These works are loud, strange, unsettling, and anything but boring, and will leave you wanting more.

"Bert L. Long, Jr: An Odyssey" at the UAC Contemporary Art Gallery at Houston Baptist University, 7502 Fondern Road, runs now through April 18. For more information, call 281-649-3678 or visit www.hbu.edu.

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