I am always interested and somewhat amused when people ask me if my work is influenced by Northwest Coast Indian constructions, Australian aborigine rock and "Dream" paintings, constructed star charts of the Micronesian canoeists, African tribal art, American Indian handicrafts and sand paintings, Egyptian artifacts, etc. I am aware of and enjoy looking at these and other art forms and artifacts. However, most of these objects were made for purposes other than "art." Only the eclecticism of our contemporary esthetic would allow the conglomerate of, for example, an Egyptian canoptic jar (made for holding preserved viscera), a prehistoric carved "Venus," a Mimbres pot (made to cover the face of the deceased in burial), and an African fetish figure which is pierced with nails, to be thought of as an "art collection." While we admire their form, level of abstraction, ingenuity and imagination, etc., the primary sense and function of these objects is lost to us. To simply copy the forms of these artifacts would be plagiarism without content.

By contrast, I saw recently, in a collection of African and Oceanic art, a mask from the Tusyan tribe (whose art I was seeing for the first time) which took almost exactly the same form as one of my pieces from a number of years ago. I would call this, in Darwinian terms, a case of "parallel development," and I was truly charmed and pleased by the discovery. Clearly, the mask-maker and I have many things in common.

For me, true motivation comes from the natural sciences in general, and biology, fossils and paleontology in particular. Far more interesting to me than the average art gallery or art museum is the Museum of Natural History in New York, or better still, the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, where skeletons and specimens are lined up side by side with no fanfare or attempt to aggrandize the spectacularly unique beauty of their individual forms. I find it tremendously exciting to view the delicate indentations of a fossilized plant or animal, and to try to have some sense of the individual life that formed it. If I have any real heroes of art, they are the prehistoric cave painters - it is really exciting to see an image made as much as 30,000 years ago, and to feel within a relatively uncomplicated image made without the successive layering of cultural imprinting and experiences, the delicate decisiveness and choice of a human hand and brain. This is "art" made only for the innocent purpose of creating an image - or as close to it as we are likely to see - and again, I feel a kinship and a communality with the artist, even though our methods and results differ.

It is my opinion that people try to find a relationship between my work and other cultures, not because there is some kind of superficial resemblance in common, but rather because my work is estranged from the Western tradition of art-making, and the viewer, sensing this, feels the need to attach the work to some cultural roots. I try to make something which is an object in its own right, commanding its own space in the world by reason of its own unique character. It is presented frontally and formally, almost clinically, like a carefully prepared microscopic slide designed to clarify or instruct the viewer, as opposed to assuming some relaxed or naturalistic posture. Referentially, my work is concerned with, for the most part, highly abstract notions of growth and interrelation of forms as they occur in the physical and natural world, rather than an attempt to picture or copy some particular aspect of nature. There is no implied window or point of view that refers to the naturalistic world in my pieces aside from basic considerations of horizontality and verticality; only the centrality and internal logic of the object invites the viewer to regard each of them as an entity. I have a fascination, almost a preoccupation with symmetry, or rather the kind of symmetry which is found biologically, and it permeates my work. When symmetry or some play upon symmetry is not present in a piece of mine, it is conspicuous by its absence, like lack of movement in a Calder.

My pieces are built physically with a kind of collage mentality, adding and subtracting chunks of material at will. These materials vary - sometimes they come already manufactured from another source and are used as is, sometimes they are raw material directly from natural sources, and sometimes they are completely reworked by me, shaped, carved, painted, etc. I am most pleased with a piece when it is impossible to determine at what point intervention on my part has taken place. Although it is enjoyable to build in the surrealistic reaction that recognition of an element from a disparate source engenders, it is better still when it does not even occur to the viewer to ask what the original source of materials in the piece is.

Art, if it is mature work, can contain many psychological and emotional aspects simultaneously. I am excited by the realization that my better works contain a complicated combination of sometimes conflicting messages. The simplistic pieces are discarded, are reworked, or become parts of other works; they are not intelligent or complex enough to have an ongoing relationship with me, their maker, let alone the outside world.

I am governed by the pantheistic sense that everything is absolutely unique, can occur only once, and should be appreciated, perhaps revered, for this quality. This is as true for individual artworks as it is for individual people, or for that matter, birds in the tree, or plates of bean salad on the dinner table.

When the object on which I am working begins to have its own internal integrity and logic, it then begins to become interesting to me. At this point, paradoxically, I have less to do with it than when it was in a more formative stage - it begins to construct itself. This object starts to assume a "presence," a place of its own in the world which is at first delicate and somewhat tentative. I try to help it along, to give it space to find itself beyond the incidental or haphazard. Finally, if we are both lucky, it asserts itself, much like an ingenious child who does or says something it was not taught. Like any other individual, it has become unique. This moment, to me, contains the real, perhaps magical essence of art, the reason why Man has been involved in art-making since the emergence of Homo Sapiens and perhaps before, and the reason why I am hopelessly and continuously intrigued and involved in such a ridiculous undertaking.


Keith Long
August, 1995
New York