For Jagannatha by Stacey Allan

Added on by Shona Masarin.

 Jim Long's painting series  For Jagannatha began with a discovery. On a visit to a friend's studio in 1988, Long found some used masking tape on the floor that was covered with translucent drips of paint, the byproduct of applying a ground coat to newly stretched canvas. He decided to take a piece of this tape back to his own studio because he "wanted to make something as real and random as that piece of masking tape." [1]  Using paint, ink, and alcohol, he made some drip drawings that were intended to reproduce this irregularity, but he was unsatisfied with the results. As he explains in his statement to accompany this exhibition at the CUE Art Foundation, "Most of my efforts showed manipulation when what I wanted was facts."

The For Jagannatha paintings exemplify Long's persistent pursuit of a process capable of removing the visual signs of his own ego by minimizing brushstrokes, avoiding composition, and limiting artistic decision-making. But in this free-for-all artistic moment that is post-Postmodern, post-Theory, and post-Identity Politics, I'm tempted to ask, what is the significance of such a quest? It now seems that the only acceptable truth is the very impossibility of objectivity. In every aspect of life, facts are generally perceived as malleable, experience subjective. From the war in Iraq to global warming, current events, history, and even science, are routinely manipulated and reduced to simple matters of opinion. Why, then, strive for objectivity in art? And if the goal is to limit the influence of one's own hand and the manifestation of ego, why carry out this effort in the quintessentially expressive medium of painting?

To answer these questions, I found it necessary to look back to where he began. Long arrived in New York in the 1970's at a time when he could open the windows of his loft on Mercer Street and the compositions of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich would waft in. Some years earlier, Minimalist artists like Donald Judd had rejected European tradition and the quasi-magical powers of the artist's expressive hand in favor of repetitive structures and industrial fabrication. They eschewed composition in favor of wholeness, and illusionistic space in favor of physical presence. When Minimalist practices still seemed too influenced by individual decision-making, Process artists including Robert Morris and Eva Hesse introduced organic materials, time, and the element of chance. They dropped felt, melted wax, and allowed nature to shape the work.

Years later, after discovering that masking tape on the studio floor, Jim Long pursued experiments that were similarly meant to produce uncontrolled and accidental aesthetic results. For example, he placed oil paint on cubes of ice and let them melt on paper, allowing natural process to determine the final product. He made those drip drawings with paint, ink, and alcohol.  He then attempted to make a "print of a circle" by floating a thin layer of oil paint in a pan of water and laying a piece of Mylar on top. Unexpectedly, it was this rather straightforward process that provided the chaotic result he was looking for. He writes: "The paint kept moving around. It wouldn't stay all black. It kept making these tiny lines and shapes."[2] These tiny figures, created by the molecular movement of the water and paint, formed irregular patterns on the Mylar circles that later became the model for the four paintings exhibited here.

The For Jagannatha suite grew out of a vision of four large, floating images that Long imagined upon entering an empty gallery space some years back. He quickly recognized these as the Mylar circles of his earlier experiments and set to work reproducing them on a large scale. Since he wished to retain the mirage like quality of his vision, Long stretched the canvases around steel tubes that give them a soft, rounded edge, so that they seem to hover somewhere between defined object and fluid space.  The resulting works are massive and each takes more than a year to complete. They are shaped as imprecise circles that have a diameter of 10 feet 6 inches, a size determined by the ceiling height of his studio space. While the shaped canvases assert the objectness of the paintings and their physical presence within the room, the images themselves appear to float.

In Long's words, the patterns on the Mylar are the "primary structures" that the works are built from. These figures are painted in a barely-there taupe color with precise, short strokes that display little sign of brushwork. They aren't decorative patterns or ornament, but the faithful reproduction of what emerged from his experiments. They do not extend to the edges but remain bordered by empty canvas that is also neutral in color, sized but unprimed. Somehow this subtlety of color and minimilization of contrast causes the ground to disappear and become even less "grounded." His canvases do not offer the traditional window to illusion, nor do they become the proverbial door that blocks that vision and makes us aware of our bodies in space. They provide a situation in which the perception of the work as image or object fluctuates, and the art exists somewhere between the sculptural "here" and painterly "there."

In recent exhibitions and publications, Long has been referred to as a "fractal artist" because of the erratic natural forms that he paints. This is reductive and misleading because it places emphasis on the scientific subject matter of his paintings, something that is rather coincidental and unimportant to the artist himself. Nonetheless, fractals are a revealing lens through which to view his work. In conversation, Long refers to Delacroix and his early recognition of fractal patterns in nature. While drawing small rocks near his feet, Delacroix discovered that they formed a pattern nearly identical to what he could see in the faraway cliffs. These natural patterns, like those Long observes, can today be described as fractal because they are self-similar, meaning that they look the same whether viewed closely or from a considerable distance. Fractal structures self-replicate, so small fragments are similar in structure to the larger whole, the way a head of broccoli looks identical to a single floret. In a sense, they are natural expressions of the "wholeness" of form that the Minimalists sought to achieve. Fractals upset conventional notions of scale and, like the countless minute shapes on Long's heroically scaled canvases, cause the eye to travel without rest. They create a disruption of distance and make it difficult to tell whether things are being examined close up or from far away.

Our relationship to nature has changed quite a bit since the days of Delacroix, and the development of scientific theories and tools to quantify natural conditions has lessened the need for observational rigor. Artists representing nature in their work are no longer only concerned with what they can see. They also co-operate with scientists in order to materialize otherwise unperceivable events - here I'm thinking specifically of the work of Josiah McElheney, Spencer Finch, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, and others who deal with the Big Bang, radio waves, molecular composition, etc. Long's paintings, though also concerned with microscopic activity, are more rooted in traditional artistic observation than raw data. Although he removes subjective decision-making and embraces natural processes, he has as much in common with the Photorealists as with the Process artists. His aims, in the end, are more representational than conceptual or abstract.

This comes as something of a surprise, since those drips of paint on tape on a studio floor were so instrumental in the development of the For Jagannatha series. That image of drips on the floor is, of course, inextricably linked with the studio floor of Jackson Pollock, the archetype of Abstract Expressionism as heroic gesture and ego. Pollock's method for dripping paint onto canvas created continuous trajectories and intricate, layered webs, which evoked patterns in nature. Before the scientific identification of fractals and the development of chaos theory, Pollock intuitively incorporated these principles into his work. Fractals, like Pollock's painterly gestures, are at once ordered and random, their motion governed by gravity and other natural principles yet still imprecise and unpredictable. While Pollock used his whole body as the vehicle for distributing paint, Long, by contrast, uses a controlled and limited hand. While Pollock projected his own interior self onto the canvas in a sincere, emotive, near guttural way, Long removes the human element to the extent it is possible and establishes objective distance. Whereas Pollock used several colors to heighten the contrast between layers of paint, and to heighten the suggestion of emotional struggle, Long's palette aims for subdued consistency. Despite these differences in intention and execution, both express the individual by representing the complexity of the larger whole.

Despite Long's efforts to avoid painterly illusion, it is easy to imagine anthropomorphic forms in certain sections of his abstract canvases, the way one would see shapes in passing clouds. On this level observation is expression, if not directly of the self and personal experience then of a larger whole. Long doesn't throw himself under the microscope in the manner of Pollock, but opts to work from a distance.  Through his careful observation of the natural world, he allows the individual to surface within the universal. By limiting self-expression in his art, Long paves the way for his own subjectivity as well as ours, in much the same way that meditation allows one to achieve deeper contact with oneself and therefore the universe.

This is an undeniably Eastern notion, and one that seems applicable to Long's positionHis exhibition statement notes that "Jagannatha" is a title given to the Hindu deity Krishna that translates literally as "protector of all that moves."  It is said that Krishna appeared to the King, disguised as a sculptor, and was hired to carve his own divine likeness from a sacred log of wood.  As the sculptor, Krishna required 21 days of isolation to complete the task but was interrupted after 14 and promptly disappeared without completing his work. The resulting representation of the god is therefore quite simple and unarticulated, and noted for its large round eyes that let nothing pass unnoticed, not even those things "invisibly small."

Long's works appear to reject the political and the personal, but they confirm  that there is something both powerful and empowering about exacting observation in a world in which so many things go overlooked.

The writer, Stacey Allan, is a freelance curator, writer, and the Gallery Director of apexart, a visual-arts nonprofit organization in Lower Manhattan.

The mentor was Amei Wallach, former AICA USA President, author and writer for The New York Times, The NationArt in AmericaArt News, among others.  She was for many years an on-air arts essayist for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and chief art critic for Newsdayand New York Newsday.  Her social and aesthetic history of the WPA's arts, design and engineering projects, When Art Worked, will be published by Rizzoli in 2007, produced as a visual documentary by David Larkin. She is completing the feature-length film Louise Bourgeois: Art Is Sanity, which she has been co-directing with the filmmaker Marion Cajori, who passed away this summer.

[1] From Jim Long's notes to accompany his solo exhibition at Sarah Bowen Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, May 12 - June 25, 2006

[2] Ibid