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The Chosen One

Fundamentalist fundamentals are examined in startling exhibit

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It's impossible to say exactly when the visionary painter, the late Reverend McKendree Robbins Long of Statesville, NC, received his calling; the lines of communication are smudged. But when the Lord made his message clear, McKendree Long, a Davidson College graduate, answered with a passionate, almost manic intensity. It took Long a while, as a promising art student in America and abroad, to give over his artistic pursuits in favor of preaching God's word to the multitudes. He must have heard "something from above" in 1912, when he elected to be re-baptized in England. He was in his early twenties when he converted into the Baptist church, though he was raised Presbyterian. The fundamentalist style named after St. John the Baptist suited his evolution, back in NC, to a fire-and-brimstone, evangelistic, itinerant preacher who led impassioned revivals.

North Carolina's Reverend Long (1888-1976) is better known for being the grandfather of a famous contemporary artist, fresco painter Ben Long, than he is for the many, many paintings he made himself. The remarkable exhibition Picture Painter of the Apocalypse, currently on view at Davidson College, co-curated by Brad Thomas, Director of Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College, and David Steel, Curator of European Art at North Carolina Museum of Art, will undoubtedly change this obscurity.

In this exhibit, 30 of these narrative paintings surround the viewer in three rooms, battering your consciousness no matter where you stand, sit or move. In one room alone, more than a dozen works, illustrating apocalyptic tales from The Bible, encircle the viewer with incredible imagery and have a visual impact that the artist himself probably never had the opportunity to see -- great groups of his painted visions hanging side-by-side in well-lit spaces.

With the exception of a couple of finely painted portraits in the exhibition, all the other paintings are evangelical, and narrative in subject matter. Long's main preoccupation in these later works is with the Book of Revelation, written in about A.D. 95 on the island of Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor, by an exile named John, who may or may not have been the same person as Saint John of the Gospels. The author penned this polemic in the wake of persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Domitian.

While many of Long's painterly passages offer literal interpretations of Biblical passages, he also idiosyncratically highlights secular individuals -- politicos of his time, and luminaries from history -- and whether Long perceived these apparitions to be good, bad or merely noteworthy is often ambiguous. Appearing among these characters from the first half of the 20th century is a constellation of wacky, wicked-seeming females -- cookie-cutter, paper-doll Jezebels with "painted" faces. In good Baptist tradition, if a woman in a Long painting is not the Virgin or a Saint, she's likely perceived as one of these flashy strumpets.

It's odd to see these anonymous bikini-garbed women, some of them surely inspired by living actresses of the time, with figures modeled after Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, collaged together with saints and assorted divine beings. In other instances, carefully copied renderings of men living in Long's lifetime people the canvases. Hitler, Mussolini and Eisenhower line up alongside Romans emperors, with appearances by the Renaissance poet Dante and miscellaneous saints. The star of each show is usually Long's rendering of the YMCA-style, Caucasian Jesus.

The inclusion of "Life Magazine realism," resulting in explicit renderings of "real" people, gives Long's art a certain documentary cast, yet these faces appear "stuck-on," as if garnered from a sticker book. The juxtaposition makes this later work appear anachronistic and kitsch, surreal and oddly creepy, all at the same time. Stylistically, the man was detail-crazy, rendering each petal -- leaf -- or hair -- exactingly. But he wasn't always such an obsessive painter.

Long was about 27 when he painted a traditional portrait of his father in the exhibition (circa 1915), and it's a far sight from the stylized pictures he made 50 years later, which have a cruder look. What happened to Long's artistic talent so evident in his early years is anyone's guess. Why the clumsy renderings when we know the man obviously "could paint," and why the flattened, pre-Renaissance perspective, when painting crowds or posses of believers in Christ Leads the Faithful Into Heavenly Paradise (circa 1960-65)? Did the painter with a vision paint too fast, hurrying desperately to "get it down" before the vision left his perception?

Did the speedy technique become slapdash, forcing the artist to over-paint to render more sharply the details of faces, truncated to a model-maker's scale? Or did his technique suffer because of declining senses of sight, of touch? Co-curator Brad Thomas cites some family anecdotes that suggest that this latter was the case.


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