Friday, March 24, 2023

Painting New Orleans, and Painting the Interior of America: The Art of Mitchell Long

The first time I saw Mitchell Long’s paintings displayed was at an exhibition held in a private home in 2008. I was immediately struck by the quality of his brushwork—by the way in which he could suggest so much with so few strokes of color. I was struck as well by his sense of line, and of depth; again and again he is able to configure the streets and the buildings of New Orleans in ways that I find my eye can’t help but keep coming back to. I was struck by the subtlety with which his layered oils capture the soft light of New Orleans. And I was struck by the utter absence of that touristy showiness that characterizes so many paintings of New Orleans by less distinguished artists.

In the years since then I’ve kept up with Long’s work—with the many paintings he’s done of the old industrial building that for many years provided studio space for him and for a dozen or more other artists; with the many luminous paintings he’s done of the French Quarter; with the paintings he’s done of churches; with the great series of paintings he’s done from the roof of a hotel in the Quarter, looking down and out over the roofs of Marigny and Bywater. Commercially, Long has had his ups and downs over that time—including more than a few lean years when he was able to get by only by selling small works for $50 to the tourists at Jackson Square. But to my mind he has always remained the finest living painter of New Orleans—and one of America’s finest living painters of city life.

Long has been enjoying greater success in recent years, but it’s been as much the result of new themes in his painting as it has been of people recognizing the talent he brings to his paintings of street scenes on Royal or Chartres or Decatur; a new Mitchell Long painting these days is as likely to be of a checkout counter at Costco or Walmart or IKEA as it is of a scene in the French Quarter or Bywater.

What’s behind these Mitchell Long paintings of the interiors of big box stores? In one sense, what’s behind them is thirty years of painting experience—the years in which Long developed his extraordinary techniques of brushwork and of building color and of painting light in depicting New Orleans street scenes. But New Orleans (and Miami) street scenes were never the entirety of what Long’s work was about. For years Long has also occasionally painted interiors with other foci—most frequently, kitchen scenes. It was during the pandemic that Long turned his gaze in a further direction and began to paint interior scenes in some of America’s largest big box retail stores—Walmart, IKEA, and, especially, Costco.

Long’s images of these ‘landscapes’ are arresting visually, and have to them a strange and quite original beauty. To some viewers they also hint at deeper themes—indeed, at some of the deepest themes of modern American life. They can be read as depicting worlds in which humans are dwarfed by their surroundings; worlds in which all light is artificial light; worlds in which little stands out against the steel gray except a few bright splashes of color. They can be read as worlds in which the wide aisles of capitalism and the ‘checking-out’ conveyor belts of consumerism are at the center of the life experience. Row upon row, the lines and the colors Long has chosen can be taken to suggest the shine and the blur of consumerism, and of capitalism itself. And, regardless of how much much one reads into them, Long’s Costco paintings give us a sense of reflected light—light reflected off the Costco floors, light reflected off the ceilings, light reflected off the COVID plastic barriers at the checkout counters. In these reflections it’s possible to read as well the suggestion that these are worlds from which we can never completely emerge; it’s possible to read into them worlds in which America itself is reflected, and (perhaps less comfortably) a part of the viewer is reflected too.

I’ll accompany this post with images of a few of the Mitchell Long works that Maureen and I have purchased over the years. You can check out many more Mitchell Long works on his website— .

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