Featured in
Issue 230

Spencer Longo Traces Tabloid Politics

The artist’s new show at King’s Leap, New York, uses ‘TIME’ magazine to unpack recent historical narratives

BY Travis Diehl in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 14 JUL 22

‘Alive: 78%. Dead: 13%. Not Sure: 9%.’ The results of a grisly survey about Osama bin Laden’s health run across a red bar at the bottom of a spread from a 2002 issue of the American news magazine TIME. Above, blue wisps embroider a grainy sepia video still of the jihadist. Spencer Longo’s exhibition at King’s Leap, New York, titled ‘TIME’, comprises a series of graphic prints that use unstapled spreads from the eponymous weekly as their substrate. Much of the text on the disjointed pages – displayed as if off the press rather than bound – has been overdrawn with opaque clip-art: photos halved, paragraphs orphaned. The left hand doesn’t match the right, except in the important sense that they hold contemporary stories. Tied together – by time. When the pages used for Conservative Activist / Revelations (2022) were printed, Bin Laden lived.

Spencer Longo, Conservative Activist / Revelations, 2022, ink on magazine, 27 × 41 cm. Courtesy: the artist and King’s Leap Fine Arts, New York; photograph: Stefany Lazar

Since its founding in 1923, TIME has marked some of the most significant events in recent history. Rattled and pinched by shifts in the media landscape, it has drifted towards the status of a supermarket tabloid. Drawing from issues published between 1978 and 2002, Longo emphasizes lurid tales of cults and extremists of the sort TIME prioritizes. Two panels involve the fallout of the FBI’s botched and bloody siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco in April 1993. Hard Sell (2021) places a beatific closeup of cult leader David Koresh – embellished by a print of a burning, Satan-loving family – across from a shot of then-US president Bill Clinton charming a crowd. After a 51-day standoff, Clinton unleashed the FBI on the compound. Published on 15 March 1993, this issue of TIME seemingly juxtaposed these two iconic, charismatic 1990s Americans by chance. It’s eerie to think that Koresh and his 68 fellow cultists (including 25 children), who died when FBI-launched teargas ignited in their compound, were still alive when the issue hit newsstands. With hindsight, underscored by Longo’s page-order intervention (in the original publication, the photo of Koresh appeared several pages before that of Clinton, in a separate article), both figures, briefly entwined, appear as twin aspects of some manifest spirit of the age.

Spencer Longo, Hard Sell, 2022, ink on magazine, 27 × 41 cm. Courtesy: the artist and King’s Leap Fine Arts, New York; photograph: Stefany Lazar

Other panels apply a similarly bold, low-res critique to the political tenor of the day, even if the particulars of the tragedies and scandals have faded. The grainy, blocky quality of the graphics, drawn with gel pens by a software-guided plotter, lend Longo’s comments on TIME the sombre frenzy of a danse macabre. In Road to Nowhere (2021), the artist embellishes a wordy article and a photo of a pipeline with graphic rows of vegetables, a nuclear family, a trio of burning crosses, a pair of skeletons and a barrel of oil labelled ‘Keep America Beautiful’. Feminist Manipulator (2021) brackets a headshot of a doughy white man in shirt and tie with a pair of puppeteer’s hands, cartoon hearts and a row of sinister robed figures. The jab comes off a bit easy – an immense conflagration of lives and desires rendered as legible as a cheesy ink job – but then, this speaks to the way our share of history tends to come packaged as idiot-proof fables, their outcomes presented in two columns: good and evil. Not sure? Longo’s series offers another, ambivalent response.

Spencer Longo’s ‘TIME’ is on view at King’s Leap, New York, until 31 July.

Main Image: Spencer Longo, Road to Nowhere, 2021, ink on magazine, 27 × 41 cm. Courtesy: the artist and King’s Leap Fine Arts, New York; photograph: Stefany Lazar

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.