Wednesday, 3 June 2009
Jonathan Jones – Heaven and Earth
From The Guardian, Wednesday 3 June 2009
Jonathan Jones – A hymn of love to the earth
Richard Long has been making his calm, nature-centred works since the 1960s - but this electrifying show feels like the birth of a new artist, says Jonathan Jones
Richard Long's day has come, and the controlled note of triumph in his new Tate Britain exhibition, Heaven and Earth, suggests he knows it. Not that this calm, meditative walk through Long's world is in any sense an arrogant or self-aggrandising display. It is the very opposite: a record of more than 40 years of self-effacement by an artist who hikes through landscapes, leaving only ephemeral marks behind - a pattern of campfire ash on a rock, an arrangement of sticks or stones picked up along the way. His photographs document these walks and temporary sculptural events in remote places; stone circles, mud drawings and tersely poetic texts create an analogue of his remote adventures. And that's it, the art of Richard Long - the walks, the gentle marks, the documentation, the relics in the museum. He has been doing essentially the same stuff since the 1960s. For much of that time, he has been underrated. He has his place in the art history books, sure, right next to his student contemporaries Gilbert and George; but for the most part he has been cast as the worthy one in that comparison, just as he was the worthy one in the 1990s, selling mud from the River Avon at an art fete in east London to baffled punters looking for the Gavin Turk stall. Well, there are rewards for being underrated. It is because he has never quite been given his due that Long can still seem revelatory. An exhibition by an artist of his vintage ought by rights to be a yawn - yet another retrospective by yet another pillar of the establishment. But this is more like the birth of a new artist than the affirmation of an old one. There are both political and artistic reasons for the sense of occasion that electrifies this exhibition. The political reasons scarcely need stressing: here is an artist who set out, in the 1960s, to relate to nature in a new way, making art in the landscape without scarring it. A deep respect for the earth is manifest in everything he does. Long's art was biodegradable before anyone used the word. It remembers the first human marks, so simple they seem part of nature - megalithic mounds, stone circles. Wintry black-and-white photographs document a walk Long took in 1979, from the neolithic settlement Windmill Hill in Wiltshire to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, site of the world's first cast iron bridge. His pictures make no comment, except to impart historical fact - "Coalbrookdale on the River Severn gorge was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution" - and the dark bridge looks as beautiful in mist and snow as the ancient earthwork in a frozen Wiltshire. The environmental message is urgent, but it is not dryly ideological. One of the joys of this exhibition is how sumptuously good Long's photographs are, how unembarrassed he is by recording his own response to beauty. I think that gets us close to what makes this exhibition so infectious: it's a show that consists of texts, mud drawings, stones and photographs - but all these things are merely documents of an experience that happened elsewhere. The American land artist Robert Smithson created a tantalising image of a sculpture almost no one has directly experienced, with his remote earthwork Spiral Jetty in Utah. Long also tells us, in very seductive ways, of a beauty that exists elsewhere, as far away as the Sahara desert or the South African karoo. His love for the world shines through - he is restrained, even minimalist, but he never lets artistic rules get in the way of emotion. This is very much an exhibition about wonder, and in the end the appeal of the show is very simple. It is a walker's hymn of love for the earth. Long takes us back to the origins and innocence of conceptual art. The reason so much British art of the last 15 years has disappointed is not that it is "conceptual" - that it treats ideas as forms - but that so much of it is weakly conceived: pastiche conceptualism. Encountering Long again is like a great blast of fresh Dartmoor air. This is a masterclass in what an art of ideas can be, from the simple declarative prose to the grandeur of a wall that seems to seep mud. There is modesty, but no false modesty. There is reticence, but no inarticulacy. There are criticisms to make of Long. Perhaps he is too pure, too clean an artist - not visceral enough. Perhaps his simplicity lacks nuance and depth. But, to be honest, in this deeply attractive and moving exhibition, it's hard to remember what potential reservations there might be. Today he seems like a wonderful British visionary, heir to Blake as much as to Constable. At the heart of the show is a gloriously open and luminous space, empty except for a constellation of stones arranged in ovoid patterns. These fields of stone have the inevitability and spiritual grace of a Buddhist garden, an effect of lateralness and spaciousness at once sublime and modest. Sublime and modest: those are the two words I would arrange, like stones on grass, to express Richard Long's achievement.
Richard Long: Heaven and Earth is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 6 September.
photographs of works in the exhibition: The Guardian