Devil in the details

“Jesus!” I exclaimed blasphemously upon first glimpsing the Rev. McKendree Robbins Long’s “Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures,” located so as to confront the visitor immediately upon entering the Asheville Art Museum’s third-floor gallery.

“Literally,” observed the guard on duty.

This painting — accurately designated Long’s “masterpiece” by whomever it is that writes the text for the accompanying wall plaques — is a truly impressive depiction of the Day of Judgment as described by Book of Revelation author St. John, but interpreted in a highly personal manner by the painter. It’s one of the many illustrations of St. John’s visions now featured in Rev. McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse, on display through Dec. 1. (The late painter’s grandson is fresco artist Ben Long of local fame.)

What we see in “Apocalyptic Scene” is the casting of the damned into Satan’s eternal lake of fire. These unfortunates — the majority of them clothed in flashy evening dress — are being driven up a hill by whip-wielding demons who then force the unfortunate souls to disrobe before the devil’s minions toss them into a flaming lava pool. Scads of naked bodies tumble past the stalactites hanging from the ceiling, assuming all manner of undignified postures before splashing into the flames below.

To the right, guarded by grinning blue-skinned devils and a glowing skeleton with ’80s glam-metal hair, Long has assembled a collection of easily recognizable individuals awaiting their forced immersion in the burning pool. Among the philosophers and historical figures present are the enemies of God’s truth as imagined by Long: William Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Friedrich Nietzsche and, naturally, Charles Darwin, accompanied by his faithful monkey sidekick. A number of women, some wearing bizarre burlesque costumes, are also present, but among them, only the cigar-smoking Marlene Dietrich is identifiable.

Already roasting are the major dictators of the first half of the 20th century: Adolph Hitler, who is being crushed by a massive python; Joseph Stalin, who’s deposited in the boiling liquid by a buzzard; Benito Mussolini, up to his nose in lava; and Mao Tse-tung, who appears both fully dressed and weirdly complacent as he stews away. Mysteriously, a figure resembling Charlie Chaplin joins the four political figures — perhaps a reference to Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator.

Above the collection of the celebrity damned hover two spectators — Dante, of course, and Long himself, both of whom grin in satisfaction at the successful and inevitable execution of God’s will. Apparently Long imagined Dante as his guide through the underworld, as Dante imagined the poet Virgil to be his — another mystery, since Long was an Evangelical Baptist preacher who could have had no fondness for the Catholic Church (in fact, “Apocalyptic Scene” numbers a pope among the damned).

Though grand in scale, Long’s works — all depicting various scenes immediately before, during and after Judgment Day — appear as private as pages in a sketchbook, the sort junior-high boys fill with carefully executed drawings of their favorite superheroes and super-villains, or awkwardly rendered sketches of a cute girl in class, or caricatures of a despised teacher.

In particular, Long’s depictions of women recall the fantasies of a hormone-addled adolescent, as suggested in the obvious (and anatomically dubious) over-attention to breasts and nipples, as well as his insistence on portraying women in outlandish costumes reminiscent of the 1950s strip-club imagery featured these days on lounge-music CD covers.

Interestingly, Long underwent classical training in Europe and was, as two of the show’s early portraits (one is misdated as dating from the 1960s — the catalog puts it at 1915) demonstrate, technically quite competent and capable of painting very well in a traditional, conservative style.

The portraits — one a sort of generic, dark-toned self-portrait; the other a more spirited depiction of the artist’s father — share nothing in common with Long’s later paintings, which resemble what might have been produced had Hieronymus Bosch, Walt Disney and Jack Chick gotten together to collaborate on Bollywood movie posters. The Judgment Day paintings suggest a personality driven by the same schizophrenic religious ferocity that propelled the obsessive creativity of Vincent van Gogh and Lewis Carroll.

Of course, these pieces were certainly intended by the “preacher who paints” (as one plaque tagged him) to be publicly viewed in hope of saving souls. But observing the highly personal works feels uncomfortably intrusive.

The scenes Long conceived — weird vignettes of holy violence — are the pious, more painterly version of what a 14-year-old who spent all his time absorbed in the complex subplots of dozens of comics might have drawn. Instead of obsessing over the minutiae of utility belts and web-shooters, however, Long fixated on the intricacies of ornate Satanic stabbing tools and the potential combinations of bat ears, inverted fangs and heads he could attach to his blue-skinned, mandrill-headed demons — the devil, in other words, is in the details.

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