The Long way round

Alcohol and art — a perfect match. On Friday we found ourselves at the Tate Britain for Late, a long running monthly evening of drinking, entertainment and art. This month’s theme was “The Story of London” — represented in movies, cabaret and archive material from the Tate collection. What got us really excited though, apart from some very tasty free Courvoisiers, was the Richard Long exhibit which has just opened.

Berlin Circle, 1996

In his first major UK exhibition for 18 years we are taken gently through his body of work since his first piece in 1967. The black and white photographs with beautifully hand-rendered type, the carefully annotated maps detailing geometric journeys crossing contours made real, and the centrepiece stone works set out in the large central space. For the typographical fetishists, of which I include myself here, there is type everywhere, from the minute hand-rendered lettering of the earlier pieces to the giant site-specific wording of the more contemporary pieces. Gill Sans dominates and evokes thoughts of classic information design of the 30s and 40s, of wartime posters and pamphlets — “Heaven and Earth” is a well travelled exhibit, but has a distinctly British flavour to it. New site-specific pieces are sewn throughout, bringing the outside in and involving the very fabric of the Tate.

Long’s work reminds me of a simpler time when I dreamed of art that connected directly to the world around us — you can’t help but feel that fantastic 60’s optimism in almost everything that he produces. It transports me back to those yellowed book pages full of black and white images of work by Smithson and Oppenheim, which I pored over for hours in the art college library. Maybe this is why he comes in for so much criticism — his work sits somewhat uncomfortably in these cynical days of production line pieces and an English art market so dependent on the chequebooks of a few London dealers. His refusal to join the auction-led frenzy cannot have made him many contemporary friends, evidenced by some rather bitter reviews of this show, but his core audience is still with him.

One thing leads to another, 2007

Is his work too comfortable? Possibly. Has he trodden the same literal path for the majority of his career? Undoubtedly. An idealist? Of course, and he’s a better artist for it. Long sees the world around us in a beautifully uncomplicated manner, and in this increasingly volatile world his work will only achieve greater relevance to anyone looking to understand how we can reconnect with it. He might just become a man of our times after all.

Ultimately I find his work just so satisfying, I don’t want him to change for anyone. I can’t imagine for a minute that he wants to either.