Luminous Discontent by Robert Longo

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Robert Longo

Untitled (Reflect Trees), 2015-2016
Charcoal on mounted paper, Image Size: 224,2 x 177,8 cm


In April, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presented Luminous Discontent, an exhibition of new work by American artist Robert Longo featuring his large-scale charcoal drawings and sculpture spanning the three floors of the Paris Marais gallery. Longo constructed the exhibition for the gallery space with a collision of epic images.On the ground floor, muted words vibrate off the walls; words from an unsent love letter by Beethoven appear barely visible. The cracked ice of a massive iceberg calls across the space to the fractures of a bullet hole in a plate glass window from Paris. Longo’s work reflect our time, teeming with entropy and uncertainty. A new body of work based on X-rays of paintings by Van Gogh and the Old masters you can find on the first floor. Time to have a conversation with the man behind these works.

Mart Engelen: The title Luminous Discontent; tell me about the relationship between Luminous and Discontent.
Robert Longo: Mmm, the idea started with the fact that I was angry about what was going on in the world. From politics in the United States to terrorism all over. I was listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and there is a line that says “quiet desperation.” It’s the English way. I am not quiet … Luminous Discontent is, kind of like, luminous is beautiful and discontent is about anger. So it’s about the combination of the two.
ME: When you look up ‘luminous’ in the dictionary you find ‘reflecting light’, ‘shining’.
RL: There is a lot of that in this show. And this show also has a lot to do with what light does. It sounds horribly cliché as an artist, but light is really important in these works. The reflections in how light is seen: that is another aspect of this show. Luminous is also about joy I think. Something that is positive. So it’s a collision of positive and negative.
ME: When I visited you last time in New York, you had a work on the wall called Ferguson, about the riots. Since then we have experienced a world of extreme violence in the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks in Paris and after that in Brussels. There is no end. Do you have to comment on that as an artist?
RL: I think you do. I know a lot of art doesn’t. I have no choice. I wish I could make big messy abstract paintings that don’t say anything. I also respect some of that stuff but I can’t do it.
ME: The exhibition takes place over three floors. I was also very impressed with the X-rays upstairs. How did you come up with that idea?
RL: First of all, the show was really planned out. There were models of the show. It was amazing to me; I didn’t change anything from my original plans. It really was like filling in the blanks. I was really happy about that. The X-rays were part of a series I started a while ago, maybe two years ago, based on a small painting by Rembrandt. I met this man in Philadelphia, a conservator, who gave me x-rays of some small paintings. I like this idea from religion: the idea of believing in the invisible; this is seeing the invisible. I like the idea of seeing what you can’t see. I think that is very interesting. My interpretations are not really literally examining the x-rays. They are amplified—like when you turn up the amplifier, you mess with the treble. I put some more cracks in it, etc. Just like black-andwhite photography. If you go to the dark room you can manipulate it. My black-and-white is not arbitrary; it is carefully chosen. They are also bigger than the original paintings.
ME: The one of Van Gogh’s room, is that his bedroom in Arles?
RL: Correct. There are three of them. One of them is in The Louvre, one is in Chicago and one is in Amsterdam and I used the X-ray from Amsterdam.
ME: Tell me something more about your amazing drawing downstairs of the Bullet Hole? Is that referring to Charlie Hebdo?
RL: It refers to every bullet in every window. The show here is very much about Paris—my relationship with Paris. I love this city. So the Bullet Hole could be a bullet hole in Santa Barbara, it could be a bullet hole in Sandy Hook in Connecticut where the kids were killed. A bullet hole is a bullet hole.
ME: Then we have the Iceberg in this space.
RL: Yes. The way this space is set up; that wall is there in the middle of an island. On this island are two man-made things: the Bullet Hole and the Raft of the Medusa. They are almost interchangeable. Its surrounding is all water at different points. There is rippling water in the front room. There is also this reflecting water, which is upside-down. And then there is the Iceberg. I’d like people to walk around that wall and get a surprise. The Bullet Hole could easily have been hung in the front but that would have been too much of a cliché.
RL: Well, I think the works hang incredibly well in this space.
RL: The thing is, this place is a vehicle for meaning. How you move through a place is really important. For my own sense, I divided the three floors. The main floor is earth, the basement is hell and upstairs is heaven.
ME: And downstairs we see the Vatican Bishops. And I know you are not really fond of religion. (smiles)
RL: Organised religion!
ME: This is a recurring theme in your work, isn’t it?
RL: Always! Governments and religion, I always have a hard time with them.

—Copyright 2016 Mart Engelen

Robert Longo

Left: Robert Longo, Paris 2016
Right: Untitled (Bullet Hole in Window, January 7, 2015), 2015-2016
Charcoal on mounted paper 193 x 363,2 cm