Conversation at the Dallas Museum of Art:
Written in collaboration with Tre Roberts
One of us (J R) has known Bert Long since the late 70s when they were both starting city art magazines; he had to fill the other (Tre) in.
Our conversation began at The Commitment (108 x 894 x 52"; 1987-8), hung at the gateway to Long's first solo museum show. In it, the artist appears as vestigial vestal virgin wedding a dark crow with paint-smeared, mirrored face. The massive double self-portrait is framed in a collage of gilt, colored paper scraps and torn newspaper clippings, sparking a colorful explanation of Long's esteemed position as a spiritual godfather of the Houston arts community.
His visionary insistence on a newspaper (ArtScene) to cover all strata of Houston arts helped create and coalesce a large and divergent community of artists. Long has such a prolific clipping book that many Houston artists refer to any such conflagration as their "Bert Book," parts of which were floating in that frame.
A big guy-both in stature and status-Bert's personal artistry has evolved from a chef's occasional forays into ice-carving, punned at in several recent works. An obvious example is Thaw (49 x 35 x 64"; 1987), double-framed in burnt wood, tasteful traces of a different primary color on each panel-yellow, blue, green and red. These colors are also gooped, layered and smeared on the inner frame panels, their dominant tones corresponding, clockwise, to the colors' on the charred, outer frame.
Surprisingly, the dominant hue of the central panel is brown with ghostlike colors drifting smokily over a large, omnipresent eye, center of a wood knot. Long's lyrical rendering of a dead tree stands beside it. Nails stick out here and there from the outer frame, whose blackened, undulating, almost fish-shaped lower bar breaks the static impact of the work.
The whole is an understated study into haunted wood, its rough wall shadow floating the piece, emphasizing its subtleties. This concentrated burning reminded J R, master of opposition, of Long's frozen sculptures. Fire and ice. Like two kids on a treasure hunt, we looked for clues elsewhere in the show.
Icicles pierce the left side of The Promise (352 x 292 x 17"; 1986), a play on lovers carving into trees. "Maybe" and "I love you" mix with "love," "hate," "trust," and, of course, "sex" semiotically bolstering the implications of the dualistic flames dominating the right side of the work. A pair of red boxing gloves-like a coat of arms-spans the base, punching home the point. The central image of a tree grows a fissured heart and a broken ear on an absent background while deep, rich blue and red run along the edge.
The ear, and eyes, are recurring images in the show, an obvious reference to Van Gogh, whose presence is rarely absent. The most blatant example is given the famed Impressionist's name, the iconic apex his ear, an eyeball plugging the latter like a jewel in a belly dancer's navel.
Tre didn't like Van Gogh (72 x 49 x 11"; 1987). J R, however, was wowed by its coded intelligence and pristine, if too balanced, formal presentation. He found it intellectual-and not just because of the formaldehyded brain in a jar on the shelf that is the bottom brace of the frame. In form and line, it reminded Tre of Vernon Fisher, especially its blackboard-full of cross referencia.
Also on the gold-hued shrine-simplistic symbolism rampant-were an anachronistic desk calendar (time), a long-stemmed blue rose (beauty) rising from a heart-shaped neon tube (inspiration) at the center of the shiny, high school wood shop shelf, a thick, black, paint-piled palette (art), keys to a Caddy (class), bread (sustenance), and Liberace candelabra (kitsch).
On the blackboard, chalked glyphs tied the disparate parts of the work into a pictographed universal formula. An unusually enthusiastic DMA art cop helped us decipher the convoluted message, from which we gleaned gems like "x m u soul = [broken heart], "B L (Bert Long) is [eye] Texas =- (less than?) Van Gogh," something about "610 million" and "into infinity." It was the only part Tre, turned off by its rampant punning, did like, though she was entranced by the lyrical green and gold paint trailings on its frame.
Neither of us appreciated Long's naive, red and blue mottled or vertically striated backgrounds, but we agreed to disagree on the value of his massive, garishly dominant frames. Tre found both dangerously important-rarely fully integrated but usually dominating the images they should support. To J R, however, the frames' substantial presence was appropriately imposing; instead of detracting from the artist's intent, they thematically enhance and amplify his message.
Captain See (612 x 49 x 3$"; 1987-88) at first appeared to be master of destiny and the floating eyes in his frame. But the slick blue frame with glassy prosthetic eyes is more powerful than the phantasmic image it contains, and the over-busy background drifts right through his ephemeral form till the Captain is all but lost.
A more successful attempt, framewise, hangs directly across the room. Approaching Tar Baby (81 x 58 x 9"; 1988), one is struck by its fat sisal frame, roped and barbed wired in bondage about an inner frame the lifeless color of bone and fat. An intense, muscular black crowman reveals himself to be all colors, opposing the sooty black of other offerings.
This huge central figure bears tiny crab-claw hands, its head tilted up and beak blurred, as a powerful sound vibrates out, shrieking to the gods. Or perhaps it's not a beak at all, but brains blowing out. The neutral tone of the heavy frame is jarred by vibrant background of red blue striations, distracting us with its cheery batik naif, though failing to disempower the figure it should ground.
Even more successful, and serene in its simplicity, Voyage (41 x 26 x 4"; 1988) has tiny eyes and mer-scales encrusted in a thick, vivid velvet blue frame. A cutesy sailboat on a stormy, multicolored sea at its base rises into an almost Old Master rendering of a fish, its body abstracted in a flurry of heavy, ink-black vertical smudges. Contrasting most of the pieces in this show, the background structures as well as formalizes this unassuming journey.
Looking around the room, J R noted that with only three exceptions, every piece was a blatant, framed procscenium. His favorite was The Crab Syndrome (322 x 254 x 5",1982), one of the least obvious and most direct works in the show. A crab carcass, bones and autumn trappings swirled with twigs and a rose-thorn ladder over Long's recurring iconic shards of mirror. The whole assemblage is imprisoned in a billowing barbed wire fence. "Death, death death" said J R, lost in its murky, burnt, scribbly green textures.
Tre, the recovering Catholic, preferred the blackened, painterly plaster cruciform Jesus Came After (25 x 25 x 5"; 1985-87), wrapped in long, licorice-like 220V electric cord, with a chrome car nameplate "JCA" nestled at its base. A blackened Hob-Nob work glove bound to the center reminded us of Donald Sultan's tar-so free, yet so mundane. A godly theme, informally wrapped, we pictured Long casually whacking it out, rough, free, and spontaneous.
The artist's ego comes boldly to the fore in a third unframed work, Dear John, Dear Vincent, Dear Pablo, Dear Bert (72 x 54" x 15"; 1987), at once claiming a heritage and inserting himself into it. Salvador's clock is chained to a bulging heart-shaped mound of broken glass, huge spikes, and mundane objects including a mixer whose bowl explodes with plastic grave-side flowers.
One joyous, rainbow-hued paintbrush emerges from the muddy, brooding mass, twined with garden-hose veins and arteries. Two black rubber boots are abandoned to the heap along with odd bathroom tile, (we kept looking for the kitchen sink) and one mysterious, framed semiotic. It's a massive iconic bulge of pain and passion, whose title is scribbled wildly around the heart, inscribing and containing it.
While the simplistic, heavy-handed assault successfully harnessed in that work is a major component of Long's kitschy folk-art, balancing his surrealistic death-art themes, other works get pushed too far. Captain See is a little too punny with its empty eyesocket filled with stormy waves and semiotic "see."
And Lost Title of a Still Life (60 x 48 x 52"; 1986) is too still, static, contrived, too obvious, and easy. We didn't even want to talk about it, but forced ourselves to stay awhile and talked out why. It reminded us of Will Rogers, full of simple-minded homilies and clichés, like its black baby doll head on a pedestal-though Tre did like an iron-shape with an eyeball tucked in a bottom corner of the bookcase.
Artist (52 x 42 x 8"; 1985-6) is appropriate next to Capt. See. The Captain's sword is replaced with a gun, and bandoleer-like lines of bullet-shaped, paint-filled vials juxtapose his military phantasm. The background is typically subdued into a mottled darkness, so the figure can dominate-his head exploding in a swirling Medusa of wild, snaking colors.
The Captain's chest-full of medals include a campaign ribboned eye-ball, a suspended paintbrush and an allusion to Van Gogh's Arles among its "decorations." Parade Left, a hunter's rifle with engraved deer seems out of place in an otherwise army scenario. The frame is built-up on silver paper maché, lending the feel of Wriggley's Spearmint left in the sun, iridescent with fish scales, sensitively integrating its appliquéd components and imagery.
Many of the works just hurt to look at; they were either so overwhelmingly powerful or contrivedly bad. Loathe though we are to use the "s" word, the show deals so strongly with the artist as Shaman that there is no escape. Reviewing the body of work in our collective minds' eye, the images loom large and spooky. Frankly, it's an ugly, garish show--one of the most potent the museum has shown since they hazarded Clemente. We spent enough time to be struck by how Long holds the casual viewers, longer than less iconoclastic works, longer in fact than one expects from static work at all in this day of King TV.
Long's sense of art history seems naive, but it keeps his work within reach of the general public, a constituency long neglected. He can hardly be accused of insider elitism. Dali, Picasso and Van Gogh are all household names.
Still, it would be good if there was more for art addicts to chew on. To us, it all seemed too patent, too undemanding. If all the works penetrated this surface play to Long's psychic/emotional ground as well as Tar Baby and Dear John , it would have been an overwhelming show. But too often Long contents himself with playfulness, pseudo-intellectual eye-play and passive homage.
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