Long Shot

Bert Long comes to Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum by way of the Fifth Ward, the Marines, haute cuisine—and the Prix de Rome.

February 1992By Comments

When things get calm for me, I’ve got a problem,” says Bert Long, temporarily presiding over the chaos of his bungalow in Shepherd, a village hidden among the pine woods north of Houston. The bare concrete floor is strewn with boxes that Long shipped from Rome—where he spent a year working at the American Academy as a recipient of the prestigious Prix de Rome—and will send off again to the medieval village in Spain that will be his home for the next two years. In the interim, the burly, bearded artist is pausing to give Houston a look at an unusual confluence of cultures—Eternal Rome and the ever-evolving Bert Long. The Contemporary Arts Museum’s “Bert L. Long, Jr.: Looking and Seeing in Rome” includes about twenty of the surrealistic, frequently satirical paintings and assemblages Long did abroad, along with a 25-ton multicolored ice sculpture that he has been commissioned to carve on the CAM’s lawn for the opening (the less ephemeral pieces remain on display until March 1).

“Our job as artists is to communicate,” the husky-voiced Long declares, and few artists so earnestly confront their audience. Long’s work, an often hyperbolic and profound extension of his own tireless discourse, is crammed with the stuff of high and low culture: references to Leonardo and Warhol; reflections on Saddam Hussein, Roman traffic, and the politics of art and race; meticulously crafted passages of painting contrasted with such objets trouvés as a battered muffler and a discarded clock found on a Roman aqueduct.

But even Bert Long’s art has trouble keeping up with the true original—Bert Long himself. Born in Houston’s Fifth Ward ghetto 51 years ago, Long escaped the underclass with a successful career as a gourmet chef, then returned to the Fifth Ward in mid-life to become a professional artist—a second career that has been almost as improbable as Long’s decision to pursue it. An outsider with no formal training beyond an art class at Wheatley High School, Long had no sooner introduced himself to the Houston art community in the late seventies than he began to transform it, founding the quarterly tabloid Artscene and becoming one of the principal catalysts of the city’s dramatic evolution as an art center during the eighties. And while the strength of Long’s own art is its refusal to be ingratiating—a critic once described his work as “just plain bad”—Long has nonetheless emerged as one of Texas’ most honored contemporary artists.

CAM-goers will find that the Old World exposure has disciplined Long’s work without taking the edge off his mordant humor and establishment-tweaking irreverence. The show’s signature piece is Bert From Houston, a takeoff on Piero della Francesca’s famous portrait of the notch-nosed fifteenth-century Duke of Urbino (Federigo da Montefeltro’s distinctive profile was the result of swordplay). Long substituted his own face for that of the clean-shaven duke but kept the latter’s surrealistic nose. Long envisioned the work as a comment on a particular sort of cultural myopia. “There were people at the American Academy, with grants to study dead Italian artists, who never set foot in the studios of the living artists at the academy,” he says. “This was my answer to them.”

There’s also a subtext to Bert From Houston that the artist may or may not have intended: Despite his peripatetic instincts, Long isn’t about to forget where he came from. He was three years old when his father, a steelworker, was killed in an industrial accident, leaving Bert’s mother, who was pregnant at the time, to raise Bert and three younger siblings on the $4 a day she made as a domestic. While still in elementary school, Long and his brother and two sisters worked summers picking cotton on big farms south of Houston. “I’d pick four hundred to five hundred pounds a week,” Long remembers. “Every Saturday we’d go to town—Richmond—to see a movie; we’d sit in the colored section in the balcony. At the end of the summer we had enough money to order all our school clothes from the Sears catalog.”

When Long was twelve years old, an uncle got him a job as dishwasher at the posh Houston Club. “Suddenly I saw that there was something outside of the ghetto,” Long says. “From then on I didn’t have a sense of limits.” Long steadily ascended the Houston Club’s kitchen hierarchy, eventually supervising a cleaning staff of several dozen. “I left school at one every afternoon to get to work at three. For six years it was just school and that job. Then my mother got remarried, and I quit and joined the Marine Corps because I didn’t have to provide for my family anymore.”

As a Marine, Long was sent to California and back into the kitchen, this time as chef for an officers’ club. After his discharge in 1964, he studied restaurant management in Los Angeles, earning a vocational teaching certificate from the University of California at Los Angeles and was briefly the proprietor of Big Bert’s Restaurant in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Long used his visual talent to win a 1972 Augie—the culinary Oscar awarded by the Chefs de Cuisine Association of America—for cake design, but he only dabbled in painting on the side. He got serious about art while working as an executive sous chef for the Las Vegas Hilton showroom in 1975, when an impromptu exhibition of his paintings at the MGM Grand Hotel caused the local press to declare Saucier Rates as Artist With Both Brush and Skillet. Painting became a daily obsession for the next year, as Long, together with his wife, Connie, their three children, and a 24-foot trailer, set off on a cross-country odyssey, selling his work in shopping malls and gas stations from Arizona to Chicago, occasionally taking jobs as a chef to tide the family over.

Eventually returning to Houston in 1977, Long shored up his finances with a tenure as executive sous chef for the Hyatt Regency hotel. After a year of yearning to get back to art, Long retired his whisk for good and began stirring up the local art scene. In 1979 he and sculptor James Surls organized the Artists and Models Pow Wow, an eccentric gala that drew a crowd of 2,500 to the University of Houston’s Lawndale Annex alternative space, demonstrating to many Houstonians that the city indeed had a creative critical mass. That same year Long traded a suite of lithographs for the $5,000 required to launch Artscene, which until its demise in 1988 was often regarded as the most authoritative voice for the Houston art community.

Long also began selling enough work to move out of the Fifth Ward and into his modest Shepherd home—heated with a wood-burning stove—and studio. But his career really took off with his inclusion in the 1984 “Fresh Paint” exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts; no sooner had Long’s participation been announced than New York dealer Allan Stone, visiting down the road at James Surls’s studio in Splendora, showed up in Shepherd and offered Long his first New York show. In 1987 Long was further anointed with a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and two years ago he was named Artist of the Year by the Houston Art League. He entered an even more rarefied realm with the Prix de Rome, joining Earl Staley as the only Houston artists to receive the award.

Despite Long’s methodical conquest of the art establishment, his work has retained much of an outsider’s edge. Mona Lisa, 15 Minutes, 15 Minutes, 15 Minutes…from the CAM is a framed print of the Mona Lisa, coated with a cracked gel to give it a fake-antique appearance and illuminated with two red lights. Drawing his title from Andy Warhol’s prophecy about the nature of fame in a mass-media culture, Long suggests that “timeless” works of art have become the products of high culture’s own celebrity-making process; Leonardo’s enigmatic lady may be the world’s best-known painting, but there are dozens of Renaissance portraits every bit as technically polished and psychologically complex as the Mona Lisa. “The red lights,” Long adds, “are about how the art world has prostituted her.”

Long doesn’t limit himself to art-world politics. Gift is a lingerie box Long recovered from a Rome street, its cellophane cover framed with a painted ribbon. Inside the box, Long has painted a nuclear mushroom cloud, but in toxic brown rather than fireball hues, a sort of universal pall that serves to evoke both pollution and war. “This is what we’re leaving our kids,” says Long, who has been doing pieces on environmental issues since the early eighties.

Race, by contrast, is an issue that Long has neither particularly emphasized nor avoided in his art; when he does deal with it, the irony can be piercing. Guess Who Is [Coming to Dinner] is an aluminum-and-cardboard tray framing a small portrait of a servile-looking black butler. “There are Italian food stores where if you order a dessert they’ll bring it to you on a silver tray,” Long explains. “To me that immediately brought up images of servitude.”

Long spends far less time dwelling on the politics of exclusion, however, than trying to draw people into his work. For years he has glued mirrors and bits of mirror to his paintings, literally bringing the viewer into the image. He demystifies the process of creation by frequently incorporating the detritus of the studio into his work, sometimes sticking tubes of paint into the integral plaster frames that have become a Long trademark (“I started doing that when I couldn’t afford to have my work framed,” Long recalls).

The ice sculptures, which evolved from centerpieces Long once carved for banquets, are the most direct reflection of his populist approach to art. “The ice pieces involve people in the creation of a work of art,” he says. “Every time I do one, thousands of people show up, people who might never go into a museum otherwise.” Since executing his first ice work in Galveston in 1980, Long has done about twenty of the sprawling pieces, which are more abstract than his paintings and often suggest the exotic shrines of some polar culture. While even many of Long’s friends dismiss the ice carving as a mere publicity stunt, Long seems to regard the three-hundred-pound blocks of ice, which he attacks with chain saws and chisels, as the ultimate medium for his high-energy style. “I love the ice,” he says. “You show up at the site, they deliver the ice, and you’ve got to solve all your problems right now. The next day I can hardly move.”

Long is making a particular effort to publicize his CAM show in the Fifth Ward. “Our biggest problem in the black community is the lack of role models other than sports figures,” he says. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an artist until I was twenty-one years old. I had never even seen a book on Van Gogh. Now I’m trying to show that blacks can have goals beyond mere economic achievement.” Interestingly, Long believes that he succeeded because of, not in spite of, that oft-cited bane of the black underclass: the absent father. “I grew up not knowing any limitations, because I didn’t have the constraints of having a daddy to tell me what I could or couldn’t do with life. My father might actually have been a deterrent to my doing something different.”

Long’s greatest success may be his own family, which has thrived in unconventional circumstances. He and Connie have been married for 27 years; their younger son is a Navy jet pilot, and their daughter works in the library at the University of Houston. The elder son plays in a religious rock group, and his daddy often advises him to loosen up. “I’m trying to persuade him to go and hang out in New York for a while,” Long says. “We’re not a family where I say, ‘You’ve got to get a job.’”

That restive spirit is prompting Long to abandon Houston at the height of his success; before his show has even closed, he and Connie will have taken up residence in the Spanish village of Berzocana, where they visited on a brief sabbatical from the American Academy. Long, who believes that the absence of a history is a particular lacuna in the black experience, admits he has gotten hooked on the past: “I can no longer imagine walking down the street and not looking up and seeing twelfth- and thirteenth-century buildings.”

The Spanish influence is already evident in the most visually sophisticated piece in the CAM show. Homage to Picasso is a potpourri of references to the Spanish master; a T-shaped handle from a child’s scooter recalls Picasso’s use of a bicycle seat for a bull’s head, while the vibrant patterning and a pasted news clipping—an art review that begins “Bert Long’s work is seriously ugly”—recall elements of Picasso’s Cubist phases. This work is seriously sublime, with a seam-less construction that indicates Long is beginning to focus the undeniable energy he brings to making art, that he is ready to synthesize rather than merely haphazardly quote his many stylistic sources.

Long’s ongoing evolution as an artist shouldn’t be surprising, considering his late start; in terms of experience he’s the equivalent of a typical 35-year-old artist just entering maturity. And this CAM show—Long’s first one-man exhibit in a Houston museum—suggests that the most remarkable aspect of his extraordinary career is that his considerable talent is only beginning to emerge.

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