The objects George Henry Longly exhibits are associative, an assertion that goes far beyond their minimalist references. They are crammed with the psyche of the artist, creating a web of unspoken formal and conceptual communications between object, artist, audience, surrounding objects and gallery.
The artist’s sculptural works range from readymades, such as the curled lighting gel of ‘Gels’, 2007, and ‘Line moiré (Site Specific Rolled Vinyl Column)’, 2007, to the spot-lit cast concrete column, ‘Jeremy Brett’, 2007. Both sculpture and wall-work frequently makes reference to past architectural and decorative design movements, the classical and neo-classical motif of the column being a primary example. The graphic references to the Memphis movement in works such as ‘Status Print (Memphis)’ and ‘Status Print (non-building structure)’ offer a humorous juxtaposition of the ornamentation advocated by the late 1980s design group, and Longly’s maintained stripped-down aesthetic language.
While a conversation with the past is embedded in the work, Longly’s interest seems to be the works’ physical relationships to each other. His exhibitions are often self-curated, leading to semantic questioning of the terms ‘installation’ and ‘site-specific’, and extending an invitation to the viewer to see the objects and gallery space as a whole. Longly has been quoted as being wary of group shows, telling fellow artist Ryan Gander that, ‘I think my works prop each other up and are a composite body.’ Though often presenting formally varied sculptures that sit in their own space and certainly look like individual pieces (and presumably sell as individual pieces), some do not stand up to scrutiny in isolation. Instead, the artist uses various theatrical devices, including theatre lights and coerced lines of sight, to engender exhibitions with a sense of the performative, bonding disparate works expertly into a site-specific installation in the truest definition (the reader must forget the overtly experimential and architectural nature of most art that shares the label).
Given this approach, it is clear that a touring exhibition such as the current Mass Damper, should tailor itself not only to its gallery setting but also to the host town itself. Works are reconfigured, new works are added, and other works localised using nearby intellectual and material resources. In Newcastle, for example, new prints were created in the university print department and a local theatre provided lighting rigs. Mass Damper thus becomes less a touring exhibition of objects than a steady conversation of motifs and thoughts.
There also exists a striking layer of biography in Longly’s work. Under an austere post-minimalism that only harnesses self-referential concepts on formal qualities for the viewer, there lies a battle between personal revelation within the art and the creation of protective barriers. That is not to say the artist’s work is non-intellectual. It has intense, informed ideas about the stripping down of form and material, references the production and make-up of material, and looks back on its historical formal predecessors with success. Yet an underlying tragedy, a world away from this conceptualism, can be discerned in the work.
Longly neatly bridges the gap between the emotional qualities of British art in the 1990s and the perceived new seriousness. He drops the biggest hints when introducing his video installations, created from Youtube sourced films. ‘New Build’, 2008, is a two-screen installation, projecting videos of both Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield singing 1967 versions of the Jacques Brel’s ode to lost romance, ‘If you go away’. The work engages with Longly’s ideas on performance and is a multilayered conversation, a coerced ‘duet’ between the singers and the sense of history and lineage given to such a much-covered song. Yet the renditions epitomise sadness and the desperate hope for redemption. Another video work, ‘Untitled (Snake Eating Snake)’, a grainy vintage natural history film, also hints at melancholia. The snake has many symbolic readings, the Genesis’ tragedy being the best known of them all. Here, Longly reminds us just how destructive nature can be.
His sculpture is not exempt from this emotive layer either. ‘Jeremy Brett’ not only references the history of the pillar motif, but also recalls the destructive nature imposed on the eponymous actor, famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 1980s. Brett suffered from bi-polar disorder, which hospitalised him in 1985. Depression persisted until his tragic death ten years later.
Other titles, such as ‘Stinking Performance’, a sculpture made from a folded arrangement of plasterboard, and It Must Be a Garbled Version of Another Explanation, his 2008 show at Dicksmith, London, quote from The Kenneth Williams Diaries, 1993, hinting at a façade that shields melancholy. In the actor’s case it was comic, in Longly’s work it is minimal.
It is not clear whether the melancholia alluded to is autobiographical or just an investigation into the universal status of suffering. But Longly’s use of particularly institutional vinyl flooring in ‘Line moiré (Site Specific Rolled Vinyl Column)’ registers as the kind commonly found in hospitals and the painted Artex which makes up the wall sculpture, ‘Third Problem’, harks back to the fashions of an early 1980s childhood. In doing this, Longly pulls the rug from under our preconceptions about what post-minimal art should be about. He adds a notion of self to the network of connections he is making between individual works, their surroundings and their universal, their formal and associative, objective and subjective, histories.
Purposely and intelligently, Longly does not tell us the whole story, and avoids turning the work into mere soapbox confessional.
Oliver Basciano is a writer based in London
George Henry Longly, Generator Projects, Dundee, 28 March–27 April