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