Sculptor Richard Long has a ready-made source of imagery to draw from for his inventive, meticulously crafted dioramas. Culling from some of art history’s most well-known masterworks, as well as from mythology and cinema, Long combines his source figures into richly colored tableaux, recontextualizing original works through his arrangements. You can have great fun identifying who’s who in each diorama, but it helps to know your art history. Take, for example, Long’s Romans and Demoiselles. In the foreground, revelers based on figures in Thomas Couture’s 1847 painting Romans During the Decadence cavort in a drunken orgy, while off in the distance are Pablo Picasso’s figures from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Couture’s painting, though set in the days of the waning Roman Empire, was intended as a critique of decadence in 19th-century French society.
Contrasting the classical figures with Picasso’s early Cubist work provides another meaning. Romans and Demoiselles juxtaposes the decline of French academic painting styles with the eventual rise of Modernism, staging its figures against a backdrop of sunset. “In the 19th century, Couture’s painting was one of the most highly regarded paintings of its time by the French Academy,” Long told Pasatiempo. “Of course the academy was replaced by guys like Picasso. That was the first time he started experimenting with abstraction and was influenced by African masks, things like that. It’s the beginning of Cubism.” Long’s dioramas are on exhibit in Beyond Surrealism, at his gallery, Richard Long Fine Art, through June 7.