Robert Longo, Untitled (Raft at Sea) (2016-17)
There are images that leave you speechless. In an age of ubiquitous digital photography, only very rarely are those images charcoal drawings. But, a 23ft work of art stretching across three darkly framed panels, Untitled (Raft at Sea), by the 64-year-old American artist Robert Longo shares the distinction—alongside photographs of the Moon landing and Hurricane Irma devastation—of capturing images that speak louder than words. Like them, this monumental picture grabs the viewer by the scruff of the eyeballs.
Partly sourced from a photograph taken by the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders of more than a dozen Syrian refugees floating on a raft on the Mediterranean Sea, Longo’s meticulously executed drawing exploits its incredible similarity to an actual photograph to trigger what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “suspension of disbelief”.
The drawing’s perspective casts the viewer inside the water’s giant swells, pointing to Longo’s desire to disorientate. A museum wall text terms it “a drowning point of view”. Part of the exhibition “Proof: Francisco Goya, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Longo“, Untitled (Raft at Sea) is one of 23 large-scale charcoal drawings by Longo currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum (until 7 January 2018).
Curated by Kate Fowle, the chief curator of Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, from where the show has traveled, and Longo himself, the show spans three continents and four centuries, while bringing together drawings and films by Eisenstein and more than 50 prints by Goya. Besides showcasing new and recent works by Longo, “Proof” provides an up-to-date insight into the work of two unflinching historical artists Longo cites as major influences.
Created as a composite, the workings behind Untitled (Raft at Sea) are also on show, including various pencil drawings and a preparatory collage as well as digital snaps documenting the work’s production that viewers can scroll through on a nearby iPad. But, even after the curtain has been lifted, it remains hard to reconcile illusion with reality. Longo had made a magical image.
The fine-tuned charcoal likeness locates the viewer viscerally inside the picture. A gut-roiling twist on modern-day photography as well as a 21st-century analogue to history painting, Longo’s drawing provides proof of art’s enduring capacity to move us.