The Long Museum's tenth anniversary coincides with a time when we have been unable to be in the world. The Covid pandemic has led to societies around the globe being in confinement. This exhibition is conceived in response to our yearning for social encounters and for being in the world - all through the prism of the artist’s eye. The human figure dominates. The assembled paintings and installations encompass artists’ self-portraits, family albums, strangers in surreal scenarios, groups gathered in social activities.
Being in the World takes us on a journey through four ‘episodes’ each themed after one work. Episode One focuses on the single figure, on artists’ self portraits and the relation between artist and model. The paintings in Episode Two capture the dynamics of families, friends and lovers. Episode Three features depictions of groups who may be strangers or colleagues, workers or revellers.
Episode Four takes us into the realm of abstraction where artists use colour, light and form to generate sensory environments. We move from looking at the body from outside, to occupying the body from inside, in order to encounter the material reality.
There may be one dominant subject – the human – but there are a multitude of aesthetic approaches. Ranging from collage to hyperrealism, they reflect major movements in modern and contemporary art.
Crystal Landscape of the Inner Body, 2000
A ‘crystal landscape’ of glass organs is a self-portrait by Shanghai artist, Chen Zhen. He suffered an incurable illness but found catharsis by imagining his organs as shining and eternal. This poignant work opens a section dedicated to the psychic, formal and narrative potential of the portrait.
The human head is richly symbolic – it supports the crown, the dunce’s hat, the veil, all signifiers of status. The head leads, judges or controls. Formally it is a sphere on a plinth, with planes and hollows. The face is a medium for expression but can also present an inscrutable mask. It can stir memories, longing or regret.
Artists’ self-portraits might just say ‘I am the artist’, a bold assertion for women or artists of colour who have been sidelined in art history. The head, torso or full figure may be a way of exploring colour, contour and line. For some the self-portrait is a study in mortality. The body may also be a vehicle to the inner self, an arena of feeling or of the unconscious.
Episode One also features many portraits of others. They might be studies of models in the studio or a stranger the artist has seen or imagined. Their clothing, attitude and surroundings give us clues to their personal stories.
Some figures are steeped in mystery. We might interpret them as symbols of longing or alienation; or characters on the brink of a thrilling adventure!
The Last Great Adventure is You, 2014
Written in light is a love letter by the British artist Tracey Emin. This artist grew up in a seaside resort that was once ablaze with neon signs. Instead of advertising a bar or entertainment, this sign addresses a lover or a friend, in a public affirmation of love.
This section of the exhibition explores intimate human relations. A relationship can be between parent and child, siblings, lovers, friends or enemies. The connection may be momentary such as an encounter between strangers. There may also be a failure to connect – within the closeness of two people there may be an unbridgeable chasm.
Relations generate drama – parental love or family strife; sexual desire fulfilled or frustrated; the platonic exchanges of friendship; the charge of unease or fascination excited by a stranger; conflict between enemies. A binary structure also offers artists a tableau, where two or three forms become compositional elements held in balance or pitted in opposition.
Episode Two stages a series of encounters – between real people or emblematic figures. We recognise the comfort, the attraction and the tensions of being with those who are close to us. Whether the scene depicted is in China or from the rest of the world, this relational dynamic is universal.
Civil Tapestry, 2016
African American artist Gates recycles the discarded hoses of the Fire Department in his native city of Chicago. They are symbolic of the high-pressure hoses used by the police against civil rights protestors in the 1960s. He has stitched them together to symbolically unify a community who suffer economic and political segregation.
Civil Tapestry represents the concept of individuals coming together to create a civic body united by identity, place or ideology. The works in this section show the universal aspects of social interaction.
They include depictions of artistic, rural, industrial or artisanal workers. There are paintings featuring individuals brought together by learning, or through attending an event. Other groups appear united through cultural acts such as joining a parade; or leisure activities such as playing snooker. There are also depictions of those bound together through their ethnicity or class.
Group tableaux can be epic in tone and scale – they may be festive or memorialise a lost way of life. Images of dancers linked through gesture also create joyous visual compositions. The paintings in Civil Tapestry often depict communities at a moment of societal change so entering the genre of history painting.
Infinity Circle, 2018
We look into what appears to be a circular mirror. Tiny lights spiral through a dark glass to lead our eye down an endless tunnel of light. Instead of finding our reflection in the mirror, French artist Raphaël Fenice has given us a glimpse into infinity.
Infinity Circle explores how the phenomenal world of light, space, matter and structure impact on perception. Artists may use simple geometric forms such as the cube or the sphere; but they repeat or combine them with light and colour to generate a feeling of transcendence.
The works here also use pure colour or mark-making to evoke the sensory experience of the earth, sea or sky. They evoke the sensation of looking to a horizon, feeling the heat of the sun, or watching twilight, through epically scaled abstract paintings. Some are airy and ethereal - others rough and tactile as if translating the surface of a rock or tree bark.
The final episode of Being in the World moves away from identification with a figure; and from the stories generated by group scenarios. The art here is abstract, phenomenological, engaging us in a journey through space and time. It takes us to the edge of the sublime.
List of artists
★Listed in alphabetical order by artist's last name
Cheong Soo Pieng
Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita
Barkley L. Hendricks
Kerry James Marshall
Toyin Ojih Odutola
Shih Yung Chun
Adrián Villar Rojas
Courtesy of the Long Museum.