The rioters who attacked the US Capitol building this past January were emboldened not only by ex-president Donald Trump’s dispute over the 2020 election results but by the evolving phenomenon of people disseminating false information on a vast scale via social media. Robert Longo addresses the infamous incident and its attendant conundrums in Untitled (Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; January 6th, 2021; Based on a photograph by Mark Peterson), 2021, a charcoal-on-paper drawing measuring more than seven by eleven feet.
Here, in one of the most riveting works in his debut solo show at Pace—under a title, “I do fly / After summer merrily,” borrowed from lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest—Longo offers his own aggressive provocation within the safely rarefied space of a prominent Chelsea gallery. The disturbing image features several figures enveloped by a smoky haze. One in the foreground, with flagpole in hand, wears a Trump 2020 knit cap and a mask depicting an American flag, while a background figure has donned a gas mask. Poignantly, a hand thrust into the scene on the far right holds a smartphone, no doubt to record the mayhem; it also serves as a reminder of the device’s ostensible role in helping organize the mob.
While this composition was predetermined by the photograph that served as a source image, Longo’s rendering of it at mural scale with a labor-intensive precisionist drawing technique might seem to aggrandize the political fringe elements seeking to topple the government. Yet the anonymity of the characters and the ominous tone of the work—achieved through the black-and-white palette as well as the focus on spreading smoke—preclude any effort to glorify this event that resulted in the deaths of five people. Instead, the immersive, murky scene of self-fashioned patriots prompts questions. Were the rioters merely trespassing on government property, a violation with which some have been charged? Or should the incident be seen as domestic terrorism?
Emotionally compelling, the imposing drawing is not framed under glass, an unusual decision for the display of Longo’s drawings. The delicacy of the marks—exposed to the elements (albeit in a controlled climate) and to the public—might correspond to the fragility of democracy itself.