A few years ago, Charles Long became fascinated with object-oriented ontology, a school of emerging philosophical thought that proposed a radical post-human metaphysics. "It took me for a ride," he said, explaining that he became immersed in this 'non-anthropocentric' perspective while reading Ian Bogost's book, "Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing" (2012), and some of Timothy Morton's interviews on the subject.
"It gave me a strangeness that I had been looking for. I'm always seeking it in one way or another, and it offered me an opportunity, through my own misunderstanding of it, perhaps, of a way of alienating my relationship to the world," Long said.
It culminated in 2014 with "Catalin," a major exhibition at The Contemporary Austin that featured perfumes made from glacial melt and an enormous sculpture that Long grew from the fungus mycelium. "I was working on two levels with it. One is that mycelium was using me to procreate. Its uniqueness was exploitable by me as an artist. But it exploited me in the very act of me using it and feeding it all this post-agricultural waste -- which it ate, producing these tiles, which made up this enormous crypt that I designed. So I'm interested in the kind of otherness that object-oriented ontology leads to. It leads one to a perspective that is out of body, in a way where you get intimate with otherness and you discount the role of human culture."
Long has been on a protracted quest for a strangeness that is deeply entwined with his desire for understanding. "I blame it on listening to Hendrix too early -- blame it on suburban normalcy contrasted with the excesses of The Who, Zeppelin or Bowie. I think of strangeness as a way of keeping interested." Or perhaps, blame it on Alan Watts, whose lectures Long listened to at an early age. "Late at night, I'd go into the basement and listen to him. I was like, 'Finally, something makes sense.' Here I was, trapped in the suburbs of Philly, where nothing made sense -- and this guy, everything he said, I felt like, 'Now, there's a world.'"
In his latest body of work, which he began to develop in early 2015, Long embraced an aspect of strangeness that took him even further. It was a strangeness of the familiar entwined with the foreign, a kind of Frankenstein's monster that is as humanoid as it is alien. He started drawing sculptural volumes accented with organic curves. Small embellishments that resembled orifices and protrusions were nearly recognizable as bodily parts.
He began thinking in terms of glam rock, and made a small sculptural study with a Caucasian flesh-colored resin. Yet, he says his early efforts seemed "ham-fisted." "I paired it down to this strange thing, where it was very much like a body, but not coalescing into one. There was something about it that was making me ill, literally; I was just depressed and grossed out by it."
After making more drawings that he disliked, Long said, "I saw this Tony Smith piece, and a light bulb went off. There was something about the geometry of it -- I saw the geometry as this kind of extreme of the body; it actually is the body in its most abstract form. I realized that using the hyperrealism of skin on the surface, but having a geometric vocabulary for the body would be a way of parsing out surface and psychology. The surface is speaking in a signifying way on a detailed level, whereas the forms speak in a psychological way."
Soon after, Long started meeting with people in the film effects business -- he even went to effects fair, Monsterpalooza -- to learn how to achieve a sculptural surface that realistically emulated human flesh with all its nuances: color, translucency, wrinkles, pores and hair.
Long has started working with a special effects fabricator for his first piece. He expects the new work to be hyperreal, but unlike many of the artists who have worked in this vein -- Ron Mueck, Evan Penny or Duane Hanson, for example -- Long is not looking to create a representation of a person. "I want the surface of human skin and abstraction's body. I've always thought of the human body as abstraction -- there is a way in which each body participates in an ideal of a body."
As removed as this new project is from "Catalin," Long continues to wrestle with object-oriented ontology. Although his cladding of sculptural form in trompe l'oeil human skin at first appears to be the opposite of object-oriented ontology -- as if he is anthropomorphizing his materials -- there is such an "otherness" to it that it displaces human identity. "As long as the sculpture isn't an abstract sculpture by virtue of it referring to some other material like bronze or wood or something like that, if its surface is throwing us back onto ourselves, and in a sense robbing us of our legitimacy, there's a way in which it's parodying us."
And so, Long's monster takes on a life of its own, defying its creator. "There's a strange aspect to objects that are ideas," Long said. "An object is almost covered by its idea. In fact that's the first thing that you have with an object is your idea of the object. What object-oriented ontology says is that as you try to connect with that object, it withdraws. The more you look at it, the further away it gets from your grasp."