Monday 25 September 2017

On Ridgewell

I first encountered the work of John Ridgewell in the 1977 Paper Tiger volume Flights of Icarus, a fantasy art compiled by Roger Dean, where his work appears alongside fantasy art luminaries such as Melvyn Grant, John Blanche and Alan Lee.

Gate 1976. John Ridgewell

Although given such high standing company in the illustrative and fantasy art world, one can't help but feel that Ridgewells paintings don't quite belong among the parade of classic prog-rock album, pulp science-fiction covers, poster art, spaceships, dinosaurs and psychedelic horror that the compilation is largely comprised of.  Ridgewell is a serious painter, following the surrealism and cubism Georges Braques and René Magritte, but with stylistic nods to Constable or Turner firmly within an English tradition, but also consisting of reflections on painting, genre and art itself .

Parallels could be drawn with Roger Deans or Rodney Matthews landscape work, fantastical spaces that invite the viewer in to meditate upon what forms existence in such a space might take and what states of mind they may provoke, but whereas Dean and Matthews offer the clean, stylised, alien and exotic, Ridgewells landscapes are more familiar, earthy and rustic. 

John Ridgewell

Post-apocalyptic, bombed out and left to seed, destroyed and overgrown, beginning to be reclaimed by nature, landscapes in earthtones, soft grey and somber greens.  A small, out of scale picnic robs the ruins of their complete dereliction, but the picnickers are unseen, human scale milkbottles left out on the front-step. One could easily imagine a pair of Froudian imps or gnomes, a hobbit or spriggan encroaching onto the scene and transforming it into a thing of fairytale whimsy, or even a Raymond Briggs character blithely going about their daily business. But the earth stained and rain clad folk that inhabit these lands remain stubbornly out of sight, their absence rejecting a straight picture-book reading.

The crumbling revenants of architecture are not often an ancient Kubla Khan or Ozymanidian temple, no classical ruin of Minerva nor Welsh Gothic of Tintern Abbey beloved by Turner  but more often structures of Victorian iron and brickwork,  The antique romance of the ruin is then interrupted by a subtle and uncanny modernity - the ghostly clean lines and tidy right angles - interpreted as a white gloss painted door frame that could not possibly have witstood the destruction of the rest of the building, their brittle geometry projecting a wrongness against the mud and mossy brick. In other examples these rectangular forms suggest perhaps a window or picture frame which intrudes into the illusionary space, distorting the sense of scale, shrinking what at first glance may be some far off dilapidated construction to a tiny miniature model on a shelf, or a postcard glued to a wall and overgrown with moss.

These ghostly white structures echo the proportions of the picture frame or visually running parallel, the frames within frames draw attention to the works existence as a work of artifice. This reflexivity is at once an uncomfortable rejection of painting as what could be mistaken for a simple illusionistic, picture-book fantasy as well as a collapse of pictorial space. Instead of the simple reverie of the photograph, the image a substitute for a view of the subject the viewer is invited to contemplate the illusionistic, metaphysical and symbolic nature of the painting, drawing an insistence of considering the image as object in the here and now, the painting interacts within it's famed and hung environment, it's rhetoric spilling out, bringing the frame itself into question, perhaps all we see beyond here is too only a glibly authentic illusion, painstakinlgy constructed by some greater, absent hand. And this seemingly solid illusion, which like the ruined architectural features within the picture, will pass in time.

Easter painting | John Ridgewell

Often the locations feel like they could be locations glimpsed out of the corner of the eye in Russell Hobans Riddley Walker (1980). The novels East England is thrown back to a new iron age by a now mythologised and half misunderstood nuclear war. As a post-apocalypse, anachronistic modernisms are interwoven amidst the ruins of more ancient spaces, fractures of  culture and language, as Ridgewells visual language, the surreal blending of traditional oil painting genres, the landscape and the still life, while adhering to the formal qualities of genre, are disquietly interrupted by echoes of sraight-line minimalism and modernity.
There we wer then in amongst the broakin stoans the grean rot and the number creaper with the rain all drenching down and peltering on them dead stoans stumps and stannings. Spattering on crumbelt conkreat and bustit birk and durdling in the puddls gurgling down the runnels of the dead town. A kynd of greanish lite to that day from the rain the grean rot and the number creaper and the dead town pong wer going up all grean smelling in that greanish lite. Dog pong as wel a black smel in the grey rain.
Russell Hoban - Riddley Walker  

Riddleys language creeps in through the minds ear and performs it's own peculiar magic. Eschewing the naturalism of the novels dull muted language, instead Riddley-speak consists of fractured and ruined archaisms - kynd  rubbing shoulders with 20th century slang dog pong. The brutal and disjointed myths constructed out of misunderstandings of and pieced-together historical record. Riddleys language, stories and journey providing holes in time back to the 20th century looking forward into the post-apocalyptic future as well as back into a distant historical past freed from it's linear narrative and erupting like Cornelia Parker's shed, all shrapnel and falling masonry in the ever present now.

John Ridgewell The Old Wall 1965 via
Jimmy Page | Led Zeppelin IV : 1971
The mythic of a rustic imaginary and a post-war dereliction looms large in the baby-boomer imaginary. Led Zeppelin IV, the cover, consciously or not echoes Ridgewells composition and image making strategy, although rendered in photo-montage rather than oil-paint. The bombed out between internal and external architectural spaces, the landscape and the imagination and the patina of decay. Led Zeppelin IV contains the most overt fantasy references in their ouvre, Misty Mountain Hop and the Battle of Evermore, direct from Tolkiens the Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien ever one to bemoan reading his Lord of the Rings as being specifically about World War Two or anything else, for that matter, aware nonetheless of the shadow of the conflict, memories of it's fighting and aftermath stretched over the popular reception of his work.
Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone.
Lord of the Rings - Tolkien 
If we frame the Scouring of the Shire as a fantastical reimagining of soldiers returning to post-war England,  as we can assume many readers in the '50s and '60s readily did, then Ridgwells inclusion in a coffee-table collection of genre led fantasy art such as Flights of Icarus seems more reasonable, if not inevitable, due to shared sensibilities.

Door | John Ridgewell

We find another example of the ruin as gateway to the fantastic in post-war imaginary, Alan Gardners Eliador (1965). Here children playing in the derelict streets of Manchester are transported to a solemn mist-shrouded, mythical Narnia, whose sacred artefacts of the Tuatha Dé Danann when lifted out of the dreamscape and placed in the real world become transposed into the most mundane objects imaginable, yet manage to interfere with television transmissions concreting the power of the mythic in the contemporary and domestic.
Roland picked his way over the rubble to the other side of the church door, and there he found a door,  which sagged open on broken hinges: two floorboards were nailed across the doorway. Roland climbed into a passage with several rooms leading off it. Water tricked from a fractured pipe. There were the smells of soot and cat.   
The rooms were empty except for the things that are always left behind.  There were some mouldering Sunday-school registers, a brassbound Bible, a faded sepia photograph of the Whitsun procession of 1909, a copy of Kirktons Standard Temperance Reciter, presented to John Beddowes  by the Pendlebury Band of Hope, February 1888. There was a broken saucer. There was a jam-jar furred green with long-dried water. 
Eliador - Alan Garner 
Setting aside the parallels between Garners ruined church and Hobans cathedral (the grean, the animal smel)  Garners catalogue of ephemera could well have composed one of Ridgewells 'portraits', or a page from Salvador Dali's diary, had Salv' been blessed by being born in Salford.

Tabletop Portrait of Doug Harris

Portraits, oil painted collections of ephemera, fragments of imagery, tokens of places and locations pulled into the horizon - perhaps a psychogeographical map of the internal life, places lived or loved or a portfolio of property, a painted display of ownership and wealth, as the purpose served by the landscape in oils tradition served, rendered conveniently observable and neatly arranged on a shelf.

Ridgewells tabletop paintings more than any other of his works are a meditation on the blending of oil painting painting genres, the still life and the landscape.  presenting a miniature world often contained within a space that appears interior and domestic, the walls becoming ethereal showing the distant landscape beyond, or suggesting a misty mural, b.  else seeded spontaneously within the wreckage, creating a contained, fairy tableaux. The play of scale and artefact, a goldfish bowl becomes a monstrously proportioned intrusion, a lace tablecloth a vast and treacherous cliff.

Tabletop (in Flights of Icarus ) John Ridgewell

Tabletop | John Ridgewell

Johns string paintings we find the space sealed within itself, a painting of a painting that has been finished and ready to be shipped off, or hidden in storage. The thin ghost-white rectangular forms, interrupting the landscape reappears from other works, but instead of an architectural feature, it binds the painting together as string. Pushing trompe-l'œil to its logical conclusion, the string is not simply painted, as the paper edges are, but physically modelled out of oil paint, built up layer by layer.  Is the paper itself decorated, the artist unable to stop himself comulsively turning every surface into a landscape? or is the wrapping becoming transparent betraying the contents underneath, or perhaps the grasses are growing through? The ambiguities that walk through Ridgewells work, seem to have arrived at a destination, painting as subject, themes of rural and rustic, nature reclaiming the man-made, illusionistic and abstract, the inevitability of transience, the dissolution of boundaries, spatial and temporal transportation, something hidden, or missing. A sense of quiet.