Richard Long’s Carborundum Songs

Exhibition Review

  • "Richard Long: The Spike Island Tapes"

  • Alan Cristea Gallery, London
  • 20 Feb 2015 - 02 Apr 2015
Richard Long, Mississippi River Blues (2014), four-panel carborundum relief painted with an acrylic wash, each panel 194 × 121.5 cm, overall 194 × 486 cm. Edition of 2. Courtesy Richard Long and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Richard Long, Mississippi River Blues (2014), four-panel carborundum relief painted with an acrylic wash, each panel 194 × 121.5 cm, overall 194 × 486 cm. Edition of 2. Courtesy Richard Long and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

One of the most notable features of Richard Long’s recent exhibition at Alan Cristea Gallery was the lyricism of the titles–Hickory Wind, The Lark in the Clear Air, Honky Tonk Women, Mississippi River Blues. Long frequently applies carefully chosen words to his works; graphic text—stenciled on the wall or placed within the picture—is often an intrinsic component of a work’s structure and meaning. In this case the words performed a more allusive function, evoking favorite pieces of music. Long compared the experience of working at Spike Island print studio in Bristol to a musician’s process of laying down tracks in a recording studio, and the series title, “Spike Island Tapes,” seems a clear echo of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s “Nashville Tapes” from 1969.

The prints, which are the largest the artist has ever created, were made with eight-by-four-foot aluminum plates and mark his first venture into carborundum relief printing. Over his four decades of printmaking Long has worked mainly with screenprint and offset, alongside some etching and lithography. Carborundum allowed him to work directly with his hands on the plates, immersing himself in the physicality of the process to generate images that are monumental in scale and ambition. Long explains: “I like the primal energy of just handprints or fingerprints. It’s like cave paintings. My materials are elemental: stone, water, mud, days, nights, rivers, sunrises. And our bodies are elemental: we are animals, we make marks, we leave traces, we leave footprints.”1

Richard Long, Sweet Old World (2014), single-panel carborundum relief, 194 × 121.5 cm. Edition of 3.Courtesy Richard Long and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Richard Long, Sweet Old World (2014), single-panel carborundum relief, 194 × 121.5 cm. Edition of 3.Courtesy Richard Long and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Speed and concentration are essential to Long, allowing him to become locked in the moment. Applying diluted carborundum paste to plates propped vertically against a wooden frame, he worked quickly from the top to produce cascading marks with his hands, forming a sequence of splashes and drips reminiscent of the veined patterns and textures found in nature, such as the complex latticed structure of leaves or tracks left in the sand by the ebbing tide. In Hickory Wind and Sweet Old World, the marks flow vertically to give the impression of plant growth, while the horizontal flow of One Too Many Mornings suggests waves touched by early sunlight.

A second group of prints was made by masking out lines on plates positioned on the ground before applying carborundum paste, again with bare hands. Fingers on Fire, Corrina Corrina, and Simple Twist of Fate were printed in radiant greens, glowing reds and ambers, and the masked-out lines form simple mazes that contain the meandering swirls of color. The final group, which includes Black Mountain Rag, In My Hour of Darkness, and Africa Dub, abandon this chromatic intensity for a palette similar to that of Long’s renowned mud drawings. Here, the rhythmic movement of the artist’s hands permeate the entire plate with earth-colored marks that conjure a sense of Paleolithic engagement—the individual human negotiating his way through difficult terrain, leaving traces of his existence on surfaces along the way.

Despite the series title, Long did not intend to create overt musical references,  but the prints do sustain a rhythm as the eye moves across their rippled surfaces. Viewing all these works together in the gallery felt similar to strolling through countryside as the monochromatic hues of winter are replaced by the tentative shoots of spring. They remind us of Long’s own journeys in and out of nature. The scale and physicality he has been able to achieve with carborundum is comparable to that of his installations and makes the “Spike Island Tapes” an important development in Long’s career.

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  1. Richard Long in Patrick Elliott, Richard Long: Walking and Marking (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2007), 52-53 []