Essex Flowers | October 21 – November 20, 2016
There is little to guide one through the twistings and turnings of the fervid imaginings and aphorisms of Æthelred Eldridge in this beautifully curated exhibition at Essex Flowers, but the enigmatic approach is in keeping with the artist’s own practice of ambiguous and oracular image-making and writing. Ryan Sullivan, the curator, is a member of the Essex Flowers artist collective; he has lined the walls of the slender storefront gallery with reproductions of Eldridge’s “Æthelgrams”: black-and-white drawings of sinuous, intertwining figures and forms labeled with phrases that, while occasionally understandable, are more often written in the artist’s mysterious coded lexicon (primarily referencing William Blake and ideals of political action).
On the east wall of the gallery, over the reproductions of Eldridge’s poetical/political writings, hang luscious framed pen, ink, and watercolor works from the 1970s: the space achieves a shrine-like feeling that one might associate with an archaic tomb, and thus becomes a reasonable environment for the imparting of mysteries, riddles, and secrets. While Eldridge’s work has eluded the mainstream art world (very likely due to the forbidding and intricate philosophy that is intrinsic to understanding the work) this jewel-like show offers a refreshing glimpse into the mind of an artist whose priorities are far from the market and whose best-known work is a 50 × 80-foot mural at the University of Ohio.
William Blake plays a central role in Eldridge’s practice, and the frequent invocations of “Albion” in the Æthelgrams direct the viewer to the poem “Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.” The artist calls his home Golganooza, after a city in the poem, and created a center called “The Church and School of William Blake,” so this is not merely a passing interest. The ten polychrome works in the show might well be riffs on Blake’s illustrations and prints— employing similarly morbid color palettes and writhing groups of figures—but it is the declarative voice in both his text and in the tortured narratives played out in the imagery that embodies the great iconoclast’s work. Prophetic texts are fertile material for artists’ work: the recounting of visions and the descriptive language, lists of names and numbering of objects have made biblical texts such as the writings of the prophet Ezekiel and the Apocalypse—as well as Milton, Dante, and Blake himself—very popular source material. Wherever it is drawn from, Eldridge’s imagery plays with the spiritual and mystical—it invokes entities both demonic and angelic utilizing a diagrammatic format as well as deploying symbols common to religious iconography, such as ladders, crescent moons, and a bestiary dripping with implications.
Ironically, it is in the “Æthelgrams” that Eldridge escapes the heavy hand of Blake. Many of these pithy and visually seductive works have the simplest of texts accompanying them: “Creating Housing Opportunities For Everyone” or “The Poor Can Do No Wrong.” The words are illustrated to greater or lesser comprehensibility by willowy Stretch Armstrong-like figures that recall Celtic knots or ancient pre-Columbian glyphs and pictograms. There is a strong current of humor and criticality running throughout; in “The Poor Can do No Wrong,” a cheerful and smiling figure cuts off its own nose, particularly apropos at this point in time. Others of the Æthelgrams range from the inscrutable “From the Bow of Ignorance Errors Thought-Launched Made in Roads Excommunicating Hilarity’s Body” to the autobiographical “The Dew of My Birth is of the Womb of the Morning.” These works are intriguing but daunting as well; it is initially engaging to ponder the idiosyncrasies of Eldridge’s texts, but the free-word association often seems completely random or part of an inner monologue in which we will never be allowed to participate. Though on the fringe of comprehensibility in terms of his meanings, Æthelred Eldridge is firmly rooted in a visual political tradition of gestural black-and-white illustration that includes artists like Seth David Tobocman, Art Spiegelman, George Herriman, and perhaps most similar in intention, the posters of the Bread and Puppet Theater. Beyond Æsthetics, Eldridge fits into the tradition of the truly outsider artist—the lone prophet and maker whose fervor is inspiring and whose sanity is questionable.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.