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The first extensive exhibition of Robert Longo’s works in the Nordic countries

Published 25.9.2017 12.09

The solo exhibition of the American artist Robert Longo (b. 1953) in the Sara Hildén Art Museum is the first extensive presentation of his works in the Nordic countries.

Kuva: Robert Longon teos

The exhibition “Robert Longo" at The Sara Hildén Art Museum provides an expansive view of Longo’s oeuvre, consisting of almost 40 drawings and sculptures mainly from this century, but also including examples of the artist’s earlier work. Longo, a leading protagonist of “The Pictures Generation," is best known for his large-scale charcoal drawings.

Longo’s drawings quickly became highly influential icons of American art in the 1980s, and have since remained monumental images in American popular culture. Longo first established his name with his acclaimed series, titled Men in the Cities, which grew directly out of a small relief Longo made based on a film still from Fassbinder’s An American Soldier, a moment in the film possessing both violent intensity and sublime grace. Influenced by cinema as well as by new wave and punk music of the 70’s, these archetypal works of Longo’s depict bodies vacillating in the obscurity and void between dancing and dying. In this exhibition, Longo presents a major drawing from this series, Untitled (3 Erics), 1980.

Although Longo is best known for his large-scale charcoal drawings, he regards himself primarily as a sculptor: not only is his drawing process largely sculptural (Longo layers charcoal dust before erasing and carving out the image), but also Longo was originally trained as a sculptor. The Sara Hildén Art Museum’s exhibition features four of Longo’s sculptures, spanning almost three decades. The first work that the viewer encounters is Longo’s Truth Before God: All You Zombies, 1986/2012, an intensely intricate sculpture consisting of over 500 pieces cast in bronze. Simultaneously exploding and collapsing, the figure is packed with the sentimental and the abject. The forms and icons, functioning as surrogates for ancient archetypes, range from personal to universal, including sports equipment, his kids' toys, real bullets, a tattered two-sided flag–on one side American, on the other side the Russian hammer and sickle.

Ultimately, Longo’s works exist between reality and fantasy, abstraction and representation. Longo’s labor-intensive, monumentally scaled charcoal drawings advance his investigation into pictorial history and contemporary imagery. Working with images ranging from the flood of contemporary images culled from the news media, the Internet, and–most recently in creating his drawings based on X-rays of paintings, Longo translates, manipulates, and amplifies pictures to construct his distinctive style of hyper-realism via an unexpectedly archaic medium. Through his work, Longo seeks to balance the personally significant with the socially relevant

The main focus of the exhibition Robert Longo, presented by the Sara Hildén Art Museum, is on Longo’s large-scale charcoal drawings. He has said that he is an “image thief", who exploits films, historically significant paintings, and the continuous stream of media pictures in his work, seeking to create a balance between the highly personal and the socially relevant.

Longo’s imagery has been described as all-American and masculine – at once epic, yet also threatening. He often presents subjects at their maximum potential energy: roses bursting into bloom, waves surging up in all their brutal force.

Longo tends to work on several drawings at the same time. The subjects of the pictures overlap with one another to create contrasts and comparisons. Longo captures the split second lasting forever. He examines the modern-day inundation of images, and slows them, asking the viewer to take time, to truly see what they are looking at and to understand what is going on around us. Slowness also takes on a concrete form in Longo’s process: the charcoal he uses is fragile, and the artistic process is laborious and time consuming. The physical act of drawing requires Longo to consume and translate images on a molecular level, pointing to the uniquely intimate quality of the medium. This is connected with Longo’s view that art is believing: in order to be able to devote a considerable amount of time to something, one must believe in it in a fundamental way.

Longo creates his drawings in series based on various themes. This exhibition presents central and current themes in his oeuvre. One series presented here, The Essentials, represents Longo’s interpretation of the creation myth and the effect of images on the mind. The drawings of sleeping children as in Untitled (Perseus), 2008, also represent the birth of the world for the artist, while the uncontrolled forces of nature in Untitled (Hellion), 2011, are set in opposition to humanity. The Mysteries for their part deal with intuition and employ an iconography of emotive images. Parallels can be drawn as well between the caged tigers in Untitled (Cavaliere Bianco), 2014, and the women in burkas in the Nasreen series.

For Longo, art represents a way to understand the world around us and to question it. He describes the study of art history as being “the gunpowder in his bullets". Longo seeks to make the invisible visible. In his series of drawings Hungry Ghosts, he explores the use of restoration X-rays of famous paintings and attempts to express the superficiality of the Truth.

In the 1960s, Longo was deeply influenced by anti-war and social movements. For him, art is a political act. Longo’s most recent series, The Destroyer Cycle, reflects the world that we live in today. He addresses present-day America, global political power relations, anti-racism demonstrations, terrorism and the entertainment industry. The series includes Untitled (Prisoners), Untitled (Football Players, Rams, Hands Up) and Untitled (Riot Cops), all produced in 2016. Connected with these drawings are the works depicting the American flag that Longo created first in the 1980s and the bronze sculpture All you Zombies: Truth Before God (1986/2012).

Longo studied sculpture at Buffalo State University. After graduating, he returned to New York, where he became a leading member of The Pictures Generation. His breakthrough work was a series of drawings Men in the Cities, which became one of the icons of 1980s post-modernist art. This exhibition in the Sara Hildén Art Museum is the first extensive presentation of the artist’s oeuvre in the Nordic countries and also one of the large museum exhibitions of his works.

“Robert Longo’s exhibition represents a special event in the programme of the Sara Hildén Art Museum. A dazzling charcoal drawing technique combined with subjects that are clearly icons of our age speaks to the viewer both emotionally and intellectually. Many of the images created by Longo are even more relevant now than a few years ago because the threats they depict continue to be real," claims Museum Director Päivi Loimaala.

Robert Longo 23/9/2017–14/1/2018 in the Sara Hildén Art Museum (Laiturikatu 13, Särkänniemi, Tampere). Open: Tue–Sun 10–18.

Photos © Robert Longo