Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 6: Revolutionary: Redon, Pippin, Matthew Ritchie

Matthew Ritchie, Proposition Player, 2005 (aerial view)

Matthew Ritchie, Proposition Player, 2005 (detail)

Revolutionary: Redon, Pippin, Matthew Ritchie

The concept of a revolution most often brings to mind a political revolution – in the guise of Karl Marx, who said fundamental change can only be brought about by the revolution of the proletariat masses against the government. And this type of revolution is normally seen as a one-time occurrence – something permanent, violently replaced by something else permanent. And yet, as a spiritual idea, that of hope in renewal, revolution has a somewhat different meaning or connotation. Revolution in this sense is meant as more of a “revolving”; to go or come around again; a pattern of re-cycling. It connotes the opportunity for our continual personal renewal and refinement, within the continually returning possibilities for such, much like the seasons, birth and life, etc. In this sense, the future comes from the past; and life comes from death – death never being the complete end it is often seen as, and the future not necessarily being brand-new as is often implied. For the seed to be viable, the fruit needs to die and rot away. The concept of revolution could also be seen as having the further permutations of continual refinement, or of a tearing down/razing – related, but one more negative towards a positive end, and the other more positive overall (a gradual tweaking or refinement). But put simply, to effect spiritual change, a revolution is often refreshing in three senses: firstly, as the good and timely opportunity for change in general, and two, the sense that it is a returning opportunity; that is, the person moving on to new things is renewed by the realization that they are involved in a grandly recurring pattern of often difficult, but necessary, change, upheaval and refinement. And finally, revolution can be a spiritually refreshing concept in it's implication that the opportunity is arriving as part of a community; revolution often being a communal opportunity. But, as we've already alluded to, this revolution – any revolution, really – has its own very real risks – physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
Taking with us this thought, let's first consider the Odilon Redon painting, St. George Slaying the Dragon, in G 14. There are several important elements in this picture which speak to revolution, and spiritual revolution especially, but we will begin by speaking a second about who St. George was, and how his story is usually approached; historically, mythically, as well as metaphorically – especially being in a painting by a known Symbolist such as Redon. St. George managed to get an entire city to convert to Christianity, by means of subduing a dragon who'd previously required appeasement by being fed the town's maidens, if no suitable animals were available. In one of these instances, the city's princess was drawn by lot to be this maiden, and was exiled to the edge of the city, to await her fate. St. George happened by on his horse, heard of the princess's plight, and stayed with her until the dragon appeared. He corralled the dragon; took and presented it to the entire city, and promised to slay the dragon permanently if the entire city converted to the Christian faith...which then transpired. However, many historians say that the legend most likely predates Christianity, possibly as far back as an ancient Hittite legend, among other possible sources. Now, in some ways it really doesn't matter how this is related to the legend of St. George and the dragon, since regardless of the legend it's associated with, we (1) have this particular painting here in front of us, asking us to consider it in its autonomy – it's own independent entity outside the legend, and (2) Redon has used the legend in a quite different metaphorical and symbolic way. We alluded to universality and the cyclical nature of a concept like revolution – that is more of how this story is put to use in this painting. Focusing firstly on the composition of the picture, we can note how the picture field is essentially composed of three dominant elements: the ocean; the group consisting of St. George and the dragon; and the agitated, luminous sky with a piercing sun. Two subsequent things become clear here, once we acknowledge this composition: firstly, St. George, as a symbol of the individual (or the ego, as Jung would put it) is significantly alone, and caught in a revolutionary struggle against the old; the past; the insidious; the individual's former self, or “old man”: the dragon, standing in the way of revolutionary change. Secondly, the sea and the sky subsequently evoke the necessarily lonely place that the psychic arena can be when faced with effecting necessary, revolutionary change and upheaval in one's life. In this place, St. George is no longer a religious icon, slaying the symbolic dragon bent on evil in front of a large crowd, to effect their change: no, here St. George is Everyman, attempting to effect personal change, psychologically and spiritually, in a seemingly risky environment.
A second element that is dominant in this picture is color. Essentially, we have a primary color scheme, complemented by some secondary colors, such as the green of the troubled sea. A word or two about primary colors, along with an association. Primary colors, firstly by nature of their name, carry something of the “primal” within themselves; they seem to possess an elemental drive. Thus, it is no surprise that primary colors are often associated with such things as flags (which are often, incidentally, involved in revolution), children's toys, and logos. Flags may make most sense in our consideration of revolution – they are rallying symbols for groups; identity points for ideas and drives: they are our strongest emotions and beliefs put to symbols; generalities that speak of larger, grander aims; they are of things larger than the individual, and even the family (seen by some as the building block of society). Looking at a guide to the world's flags, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that the great majority of them use primary colors to great effect; standing in for such things such as homeland; honor; bloodshed; peace and justice – as we said, “primal drives”. Just as an example, our country's first secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson, said of the colors given to the Great Seal (same as the Stars and Stripes) that red stood for “hardiness and valor”, and blue “the color of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice”. To relate this to the Redon, we can contrast this with the idea of a personal, interior, psychological struggle; the red, blue and yellow, and the green which mediates between them, tell something of the psychological, largely internal struggle that Redon is portraying. We are a step or two removed from the transcendently challenged struggle in the Rousseau, Scout Attacked by a Tiger – there, there is hope shining past the oppressive band of jungle there is hope in the companion whom is able (ostensibly) to assist the scout in danger and peril. But in the Redon, there is nothing besides the dragon, the harsh elements, and St. George: a struggle against the accentuated, elemental consciousness; the past we are attempting to revolt against. After realizing the strength that is in these primary colors, we can begin to feel both the internal, personal revolution that is portrayed in the Redon, as well as the allusions to societal change that primary colors, extrapolated from the personal, seems to suggest. In the sense of Naturalism, this harsh, natural condition is not unlike a roiling ocean, battle or port scene of J.M.W. Turner, mirroring the upheaval of the soul in the forms of humans caught in those same forces of nature. Think of Marseault, Camus' hapless character in The Stranger, who is accused of killing an Arab on the beach, but seems utterly subject to the fateful whims of natural fate, to be condemned for something he barely realizes he's done. The main point to grasp on to here, though is that, despite sometimes manifesting themselves in very different ways, interior psychological revolution has much to do with the larger, societal “sea” changes through physical revolution: both are integrally connected to the universal phenomenon which is the revolutionary concept. After all, the spark of a revolution happens firstly in the heart of one or a few, then between the interpersonal sticks of a larger group or community, until it begins to consume vast forests of a society or a generation, in its conflagration of change. So, too, a spiritual change: both are alluded to here in the Redon.
A quite similar internal compare-and-contrast is active within the Horace Pippin painting in G 12 (Woman at the Well). A few words about the story related here may help us on our way. This was a woman with a history of having many partners, a life of being an outsider and societal pariah among pariahs (being a Samaritan, the much-hated race considered “mongrel” by pure Jews). Christ talks to her as an equal, at her everyday workplace, and offers her a new way, a way in contrast to her old ways. She is astounded at his insight and clarity, and is seen to accept the change, and share with her neighbors near the end of the story. As far as the composition used by Pippin, it's somewhat similar in elements to the Redon: there is a central group of interaction, composed of Christ and the Samaritan woman; the scene of the well and the copse, which is almost silhouetted; and the harshly-lit pinks and magentas of the sky in the background. And much like the Redon, through whose painting and composition style (colors, etc.) we can gather some sense of the psychological upheaval taking place – the point of spiritual threshold – so we can here too; and this sense is again accentuated as an image of the forces of nature: instead of the roiling sea and lonely beach, it is a somewhat secluded well on the edge of a village, which sits under this shockingly colored sky. From what we know about the story, we can know that the woman is being invited to make a change in her life; in a sense, she is a step behind the figure of St. George in the previous painting – she is still on the cusp of the crucial decision; not yet able to wield the sword, and slay the dragon of her former self. A few words about the colors in this painting: the pinks used in the sky, ranging from deep rose to cotton candy, definitely seem momentous; revelatory and important: mirroring the edgy feeling of someone with the opportunity to make an important life change. But can we tell whether it is a sunset or a sunrise? And is that clue important? Firstly, if it is a sunrise, then it is a beacon of hope; a symbol of a new day; a fresh start that we are all (ostensibly) given. This implies newness; and the former woman lost in the night that is nearly over. As a symbol of change, of personal revolution; this symbolizes the afterglow of revolution: a new day dawning – the rise of victory. If this is a sunrise, then, we like this woman, are hopeful for what is to come. However, if this is a sunset, it is a symbol of a revolution beginning: the old is about to be extinguished – the new is not on its way; there is still too much to be done. Spiritually, the change is beginning – the end of the old; the impeding ways and beliefs; the demise of that which has held us down for too long. A final point about this Pippin can be made, relating the discussion of sunset versus sunrise to Pippin's traumatic experience in the second World War. Pippin was severely injured in battle, and lost the use of one of his arms. This affected him deeply, and put him into a sort of depression. Of course, as we know, he struggled his way through that time, and was able to make the necessary “slayings” of his demons, or dragons if you will, to turn into a fine, deep and consistent painter. The specter of war can be seen in the light of a sunset or sunrise, being both a harbinger of terror, as well as a dubious spark of peace. Perhaps some thoughts of the conflicts he had been involved in were going through Pippin's mind when he was painting the picture of this story of quiet revolution.
Two additional things can be said about the similarities we see in these two paintings: for one, both of them are a visual door (pictorial door) of sorts into a metaphor of a mental, spiritual changing point – that is, we are viewing the pause before the sword enters the dragon and he is killed; we are seeing the pause before the Samaritan woman decides to leave behind her former life, and follow a new way. Secondly, both pictures attempt to portray the spiritual aspect of revolution, through especially strong and emotionally evocative colors. Both pieces, through these drastic, revolutionary colors, accentuate and exaggerate the momentousness of that mental, spiritual changing point mentioned before, thus reinforcing these paintings as beacons shining between the universally revolutionary, and the utterly personal. Instead of clearly illustrating one or the other, the viewer is reminded that each is really another version of the other, and they are integrally related and connected. Thus, these two paintings continue in the more illustrative pattern of paintings, as opposed to a more contemporary expression of “being” the quality rather than “showing” it. That is, in contemporary thought, a story is not absolutely necessary; the art work may already function as the plot in its entirety.
As far as revolutionary material, especially as far as incorporating the more holistic sense of revolution as an idea of “re-cycling” and “re-peating” – that is, the cyclical aspect of revolution – one artist that comes to mind, as being in this mold, is Matthew Ritchie. Ritchie is a British artist, currently based in New York. Rather than being illustrative of, or pointing to the revolutionary, Ritchie's work takes the very idea of universality and begins pulling it apart – looking for the seed of revolution. His work for Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop in 2005, called Proposition Player, is expressly interested in trying to engage all of human consciousness into its purview – a rash and bold motive, but the result of the work is a beautiful, layered and complex mix of the mystical and visual. Ritchie works with contemporary, industrial materials such as vinyl, and laser-cut tiles, both suspending the filigrees of visually-referenced material, and plotting them out on the floor like a map. When observing his work, one might get overwhelmed by the hugeness and complexity of the universe – past and present – and this might actually be right along with Ritchie's intent. The laser-cut vinyl ebbs and flows like a cloud of data and tortured charts and graphs; they roil like Redon's waves, carrying the possibility of revolution along with them. In Proposition Player, the ceiling-hung vinyl cutouts, evoking masses of woven thoughts, hover over the multicolored stream of interlocking colored tiles, flowing on the floor under the filigrees like run-off from a paint factory. But these two elements – upper and lower – are also connected by sticks or rods, which act as flimsy connectors between the collective consciousness of the filigree – the ephemeral universal belief and truth which we can tap into, invoking the call of revolution (fundamental change) into our lives. As Jung would attest, the collective consciousness, that vast, ageless amassing of myth, knowledge and unfathomable darkness and light, can be tapped by our egos for both detrimental bad, or revolutionary, life-changing / altering good. We, in a way, are this flow on the floor of Proposition Player, and the filigree above is that universality we tap into. A preview of the Fabric Workshop show says it well: “While the works contain seemingly chaotic arrangement of colors and forms, each piece is in fact a deliberate map of the limitless connections that make up the universe's implicit order. The visual and underlying order in Ritchie's work mirrors the chaos and order of the universe”. Another article states, “Ritchie...sees the whole universe as one big experiment”. And how more revolutionary can one get than that? Nothing is ultimately permanent; it is simply a continuing pattern of trying new things; improving our lives and others': a continuing, re-cycling, sublime revolution.

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