Artist Rooms: Richard Long, The Hepworth Wakefield

The Hepworth stands on the banks of the river Calder. It is adjacent to a rushing weir. The cascading energy of this ebullient, artificial diversion of a natural phenomenon is enough to inspire an ancient sense of animism. A visual survey of the weir and gallery from the adjoining bridge requires of the viewer a sort of hypnotic pilgrimage. The brief walk feels a little like an ancient rite with the attendant sense of mesmerism. It is this almost spiritual perambulation that prepares the viewer for the works of Richard Long.

Long has stated that it was his intention ‘to make a new way of walking: walking as art’. Earning a reputation as one of the UK’s most significant artists, he has developed this idea in three ways: photographs, maps and text works. His sculptures take place in landscapes through which he has been walking, and which he has made on the way; or in gallery spaces as responses to particular places. Most of the works currently exhibited at Hepworth Gallery impress at least because of their considerable scale; and an element of spirituality can be detected in both the small and large-scale structures of the works. The materials strike the viewer for their starkness.

Cornish Slate Ellipse (2009) consists of slate cuboids of varying size, roughly interlocked with an element of linear regularity on the small scale. On the large scale the form is an ellipse. The slate blocks seem to have been dressed, and as such, they have a certain surface quality of the oxidisation of precious metal. This sense of preciousness reinforces the sense of wonder and animism conveyed by the scale and elliptical form. It is like an ancient, spiritual monument. The ovoid connotations and roundness tap in to those archetypal forms universally projected by cultures engaged in concerns spiritual. The same can be said, to an extent, of Blaenan Ffestiniog Circle (2011). Here, the large-scale form is, indeed, a circle. The small-scale structure consists of jagged, black, grey and sand rocks with grains of white. Many of the rocks are considerably taller than the slate cuboids of the previously mentioned piece, and there is much more variation in height between the individual rocks. The ancient, archetypal, and monumental are connoted here with memories of stone circles and, perhaps, Stonehenge. The circular form fascinates for the sense that it is reminiscent of the Jungian mandalas. As such, both works are highly charismatic.

In the same space as these animistic wonders is the two-dimensional work, Waterfalls (2012). This piece was commissioned for the current exhibition and really is spectacular. An enormous, flat, wall-mounted work, it takes up an entire wall. Here, areas of pure, vertical, cascading propagation are interrupted by portions of energised activity. The execution, employing china clay on paint, is so sweeping and strident with expert lightness that the sense of animism conveyed refreshes as well as mesmerises. In a separate space the visitor encounters Somerset Willow Line (1980). Here, regularly spaced willow strips of similar size are placed in all directions within an enormous rectangle on the floor. Conveying a sense of a walking journey, the piece also speaks of primitive tracking and hunting communication; and perhaps magic. Unfortunately, the work is let down by the lack of contrast between the tone of the material employed and that of the exhibition space floor on which it is ranged.

In a smaller part of the gallery the visitor finds a selection of Long’s black and white photographs. Most of them employ gelatin silver print on paper. In doing so, the infinitesimally detailed blended and stark contrasts captured by the resolution make a lasting, haunting impression. Two works from the late sixties capture images of fields or meadows shrouded in an almost ethereal haze of wild flowers. In both cases, strips of the floral haze are absent, indicating walking journeys. A Line Made by Walking (1967) is a buttercup field with the path moving centrally from foreground to background. It is both inviting and intriguing but also imparts a sense of loss. England, 1968 (1968) is a field of daisies with two paths intersecting, reminiscent, in conjunction with the title, of the St. George’s cross. The spiritual is conveyed again through the implied sense of archetypal individuation of the form, this time with elements of the ethereal and the ephemeral. A more solid material and aesthetic is employed in the sculptures captured in A Circle in Alaska (1977) and Circle in Africa (1978). These archetypal forms are set in greatly contrasting terrains. The former is a horizontally layered treat of a landscape incorporating sky, sea, shore and foreground. The circle seems to be a driftwood monument. In the latter, the circle, composed of dry branches, sits in an arid, virtually barren landscape. The contrast between the two environments drives at a notion of the universality of the archetypal form incorporated, as well as being a display of beauty.

Concentric Days (1996) is a map of an area of Scotland with concentric circles issuing out from a central point. The caption on the piece reads ‘Each day a meandering walk somewhere and to the edge of each circle’. This piece, where the circle is incorporated as part of an intended, measured abstraction, also reinforces the theme of walking that runs throughout the exhibition. Walking long distances in areas of rugged beauty often results in a rambling meditation and cogitation, the physical journey running in a related parallel with a mental, emotional one. The archetypal, monumental and, indeed, spiritual forms inspired by such experiences as presented by Long reveal a universal pilgrimage untarnished by creed or dogma.

Text: Daniel Potts

ARTIST ROOMS: On Tour with Art Fund, Richard Long, 23rd June until 14th October, The Hepworth Wakefield, Gallery Walk, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, WF1 5AW.