Mud is not a promising medium to draw with. It is dull, thick, unpromising stuff. A muddy drawing sounds like a vague and boring one. Miraculously, however – or maybe just because he’s spent 50 years making art in and of the land – Richard Long’s huge new mud drawing Gravity Crescent is hypnotic, full of complex 3D curves that snare the eye.
It looks as if eels are nesting in the wall. They writhe and wriggle, each tubular body created by a swerve of Long’s mud-stick. The raw wet earth with which he created this towering work, on a pristine white wall in London’s Lisson Gallery, comes from the river Avon, so perhaps the material is haunted by the river’s flashing, silver-scaled creatures. His muddy swirls mass in an engrossing swarm. The flow and life of the river seems caught in this whirlpool of mud.
Gravity Crescent forms part of a vast unfinished circle. Below one section, muddy drips plummet like raindrops. The filled-in segment is crescent-shaped. Is it a croissant? Is it a piece of cake? No, it is the waxing moon. And beneath it, a stone circle fills the floor. It is a perfect disc, made simply by arranging radiating lines of rocks.
Once again, Long’s feeling for nature lets him do something artistically magical. The stones are all flints. Their glistening white surfaces shine brightly, set off by flecks of black, to create a dazzling circle of light. It is the sun. Long’s installation is a cosmic picture of the two great discs in the sky. It is as if the megalithic builders of the stone age have set up shop at one of London’s top commercial galleries.
Simple as it is, this astronomical installation sums up Long’s life in art. In 1967, when the consumer society was happily pumping out plastic and napalming nature, this young artist made a line across a field in England’s West Country by repeatedly walking backwards and forwards. It survives only as a photograph. It was no more intrusive in the landscape than the tracks badgers make.
Ever since, Long has been walking the world, making and photographing ephemeral images. A photo here shows a circle he created in 2016 on a walk by the Amazon. All he did was press down the leaves of a plant to shape a circle on the ground. The rubbery leaves would have bounced back by the time he got his picture printed.
What we see in this concentrated exhibition is the fruit of all those decades of meditative walks through great natural spaces. Long has clearly been musing on the lights in the sky. Like an early human, who has no idea that the sun is a star orbited by the Earth or that the moon is our satellite, he marvels at the magic discs that illuminate his journeys. Two wall texts summarise walks he made by the light of moon and sun. In one, he measures his paces from moonset to sunrise, from sunrise to moonset.
This modern primitive creates art in the same spirit that inspired our ancestors to lug bluestones from Wales to build Stonehenge which, like the works here, has the sun and moon in its sights – and, like Long’s circles, is precise in its geometry.
Yet Long would not dream of creating anything as intrusively permanent as Stonehenge. He treads lightly in the landscape. As we watch the seasons getting confused, the Earth’s rhythms lost, the seas warming, he has a vision of rebalancing humanity and nature. Half an hour with his work in the middle of a riotous city is like lying in a meadow staring at the sky. Time slips and slows. The sound of a river patters nearby. Birds sing. The old stones warm in the sun.
Richard Long not only shows you nature, he makes you feel part of it again. It is worth taking a walk with him.