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William Blake: On the Infinite Plane

Even though I grew up right next to Mortlake Church, where John Dee lies buried but unmarked; even though I spent seven years walking Peckham Rye, where William Blake saw angels in the mulberry trees; I left England without much interest in Blake or his work. This was a product of both my upbringing and the times. Blake is a moving target in English culture; clearly he is a national treasure, embodying a kind of authentic Englishness that is much rarer than the English would like to admit. That "Blake" is a totem, author of the national hymn, spiritual vizier of the alternate, Arthurian Albion beloved of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; a place somehow specially and personally blessed by God. But precisely because of his overt religiosity and personal eccentricity, he is also slightly embarrassing, fitting neither of the preferred modes of contemporary social and artistic success that have characterized English artistic society for centuries.

Figure 1. The photographs accompanying this essay are from Ritchie's most recent exhibition:
The Universal Adversary
Installation View
Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY
September 21 - October 28, 2006
Matthew Ritchie. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Photo by Tom Powell.

He is neither a sturdy middle class craftsman (Turner, Constable, Dickens, Freud, etc.) intent on joining and influencing the establishment, nor a lusty working class rebel (one of nature's gentlemen, like Lawrence, Lennon, Bacon, Hirst, etc.) easily valorized and assimilated in the post-war class structure. The extent and sincerity of his vision confronts the "system of the world," as it has always done, with what it abjures the most, a genuine individual, both willing and capable of confronting and challenging universal perceptual categories in art and politics alike. The discomfort this has caused has resulted in various caricatures being attached to him – quirky naturist, incorrigible debtor, pathetic wacko, early hippie, "jolly nice bloke" (Ian Dury), irascible grump and, worst of all, "eccentric," the favorite of a kind of worthy do-gooder. In this sense, William Blake has transcended his own role as an artist and become an odd kind of archetype himself, a piece in a contest between various interpretations of British history. In my time, the image of Blake as a kind of mad proto-hippie was dominant, stranding his work in a Sargasso – somewhere between Yes album art and William Morris wallpaper, best appreciated by mushroom eaters or elderly friends of the Tate. At the time, only Alasdair Gray, the extraordinary author of Lanark, seemed to have any kind of live connection to Blake's real legacy as visionary and humanist.

Figure 2.   Matthew Ritchie. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Photo by Tom Powell.

Years later, after I moved to the United States, my first exhibition in New York (Basilico Fine Arts in 1995) included an index called the "working model" that listed families of angels and matched their traditional narrative properties with modern and scientific counterparts. (For example: Lucifer, "the lightbringer," became the modern photon). Among them was the character of Los, who for me represented the thermodynamic property of "work," a meaning derived from my own research into Gnosticism, initially inspired by Elaine Pagels. As my project expanded to include an extended series of narrative studies in colored ink on mylar, Blake's use of existing and invented para-Gnostic legends became a common reference point for critics talking about my work – along with comic books.[1] But even then, I shied away from any particular study of Blake until an exhibition at the Metropolitan in 2001. The show focused particularly on Blake's illuminated books and his fusion of theology and politics. In the narrative of the books, it became clear that Blake had cast himself as a kind of master game player, almost a demi-god himself, more than willing to recast reality and mythology to suit his purposes. Archetypes were used as props, empty avatars for points of view. This freedom was of particular interest to me – especially where it overlapped with the oppositional qualities of early Gnostic heresies (Manichean, Ophitic, Cainite and Marcionite) and combined with the newly evolving narrative freedoms of the internet. I recognized in him a passion for the idea of the metaphor as the only suitable state of mind for a political climate in which literal meanings had become impossibly compromised. But the books offered more than a rethinking of the relationship between idea and source. They also purported to be a universal codex. Drowning in a sea of readable images capable of being shaped (or encouraged) to tell the story of their own making and sensing the passing of an era in the West in which unknown powers could be invoked to sustain moral choices, Blake made the claim that it was possible to assert a universal moral frame of reference through invention. My own project was stricter in the specifics, but I was ultimately no less casual in my disregard for historical cohesion in my own battle with the idea of how to picture the universal struggle of material and immaterial concepts.

Figure 3.   Matthew Ritchie. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Photo by Tom Powell.

This idea, of a battle to be fought through visual means, is perhaps the most telling link between his work and the modern idea of comics. Although modern comics can seem to be a ludicrously self-contained and limited culture to the outsider, largely filled with steroidal men in masks and anatomically distorted sex objects in thigh boots, they are also quite clearly the latest retellings of the various typical myth structures first articulated to deal with the timeless problems of life, death and good and evil. In this primordial world, beings of rock, iron and fire battle gods and demons in a comfortingly closed circuit of violence, desire and resolution. This is the same world that was, until only a hundred years ago, the exclusive hunting grounds of the fine artist. After cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Illuminated manuscripts and Books of Hours, Renaissance predellas and Byzantine icons, Dürer and The Book of Revelations, multi-part woodblocks from the Edo period, Goya's serial lithographs and engravings, Honoré Daumier, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Ernst, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, I'm not sure that even now, pure "comic" art exists as a meaningfully separate category. The traditional qualities of comics – processed color, seriality, message, text, empty acts of violence – have all been exploited by so many artists, from Öyvind Fahlström to Jim Shaw, Julie Mehretu and Tom Friedman, that it seems almost crazy to not allow comics and fine art to simply co-exist. And of course, numbering strategies, from the Trinity and the twelve apostles to the Fantastic Four and the Seven Samurai, have always fascinated scholastics, artists and shut-ins alike.

Figure 4.   Matthew Ritchie. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Photo by Tom Powell.

But the catch, and there's always a catch, with any universalizing system is that if you make anything that takes a long time, a world, or a book, or a comic, you begin to notice that you are larger than the work. It doesn't matter how much of a monk, or a shut-in, or a scholar you are. You are always larger and increasingly older than the system, no matter how complex you make it. So even if the system is closed, you are open. But in turn, you are enclosed by a larger system and so on. Since it is almost impossible to deal with the implications of this, which requires visualizing the large-scale general structures of the universe and the specific details of daily life in the same referential frame – most people don't. Usually this self-referential feedback leads to either a repudiation of the closed world, or a retreat to a kind of stupor when dealing with universal themes. The ideas themselves are consigned to the limbo that Slavoj Žižek calls the "Big Other."

On one level Žižek is right; most people happily attribute the larger definition of their reality to unknowable and fathomless forces that absolve them of the responsibility of understanding in order to stop the collapse of their own personal feedback loop. But on another plane, Blake, as a representative of a certain kind of artist, the kind of artist who might also be interested in comics, stands against this position. The redeeming property most strongly expressed through Blake's art is its ability to present the general and the specific simultaneously, despite the contradictions and cognitive dissonance this produces. This position embraces the problem of the Big Other, not by hiding from it, but by embracing it; creating worlds within worlds, amassing detail upon detail while understanding that the inevitable contradictions and oscillations that will violate the system (in a way that in physics could be called symmetry breaking) are essential to both its small scale structure and its large scale operation. This combination of obsessive fixation and the endless revision of the fixation (or fetish) allows for an imaginative breaking of the feedback cycle and the instigation of larger and larger imaginative leaps. It is precisely because Superman is "killed" over and over again that the agent can be re-imagined, allowing the franchise to remain open and survive.

Figure 5.   Matthew Ritchie. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Photo by Tom Powell.

Of course Blake's vision of the multiverse and its many subsequent iterations in comics and science fiction, from Neil Gaiman to Michael Moorcock, is in some ways only a reactive response to the problem of the feedback loop. The multiverse is the ultimate escape; it allows for all possible outcomes and desires to be gratified simultaneously, while in our world the need for political action of the kind Blake advocated in his books is drained away through cartoons. However, the difficulty of this task does not demean it, or render Blake's work useless; it only serves to underline how advanced a response is required. In Blake's case especially, the physical implausibility and visual difficulty of the work renders it even more valuable as a defense.

Practically, Blake's work deals with the problem in a typically direct way. The drawing serves as specifier or targeting device, the color as illuminator or flare. The metered text bridges both functions, as translator and emissary between the two and as a kind of occluded lens for the reader. A triangular system is then invoked that allows for the strongest possible resistance to conventional reading and easy closure.

Although it may seem paradoxical to think of a book or comic deriving its strength from being to some extent incomprehensible, the difficulty of reducing Blake's work to any of its elements remains one of his greatest strengths. Of course we're all interested intellectually in legibility, four-color mapping, the problems of information representation and the idea of fill, line and tone. But at the same time, there is the kind of image that can be understood, reproduced and printed, (the kind we associate with most comics), and then there is the kind of image that transcends its physical limits. More often we associate painting with this kind of fusion but Blake's occult relationship to printing and his attempts to make printing a direct equivalent to painting proves that there is no real or absolute difference, only a graduation between what we call a "comic" and what we call a "painting." Blake compresses that graduation into a single plate. Through sheer force of will he wrestles allegory, image and dream on to the printing plate, the purely physical plane of reality, where there is no dissonance, no vacillation, only a determination of focus and memory made by the visual system to conform to one's own contexts and desires. Reality is as complicated as it appears to be. You draw what you choose to draw. You write what you choose to write. You see what you choose to see. Blake's genius was that in this uphill struggle he transcended all categories, climbing off the grade into a strange, hard new world. His own: flat but infinite, where metaphors are real, scratched into steel and dissolved in ink on the boundaries between idea and line, image and text, painting, drawing and dreams.

Notes

[1] Editor's note: Matthew Ritchie's work in Proposition Player focuses on what was described by Owen Drolet in an interview with him as "an entire, self sufficient language of symbols." Ritchie responds by explaining the place of symbols in his work.

Figure 6.   Matthew Ritchie. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Photo by Tom Powell.
The symbolic language that I use is intended to operate both independently as a pure form in itself and as a bridge between various pre-existing symbolic vocabularies. It is both an independent system and a model of models. The system evolved as a way to describe the internal architecture of making paintings. In the same way that a computer's internal progamming reflects the mind of the maker, so art reflects the perceptual architecture of the mind. I was hoping to create a primitive universal language that would allow symbolic translation of that architecture. On the way there I found myself drawn back to the question of origins, and consequently I had to first build a model of the kind of universe where such a language could even be contemplated. The alphabet of the system is very simple to start with and like most languages increases in compexity as the various components are combined with each other.
The system works like this: There are forty nine elements, divided into seven groups of seven. The seven groupings describe seven separate areas of operation in the system. Each element can appear in seven different ways depending on the context it is used in. Although the number of combinations is probably infinite, that is not the point, this is not a numerological system. The forty nine elements are characters, with precisely defined functions in the story that is told by their interaction. This is the story of origins, of genesis and fall, as a metaphor for the construction of art.
Figure 7.   Matthew Ritchie. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Photo by Tom Powell.

See the remainder of their 1995 interview for a fuller description of this project. Among the many art critics who find parallels between Ritchie's work and Blake's is Melinda Rose Silva, who in "Why the Hard Way Isn't So Difficult," calls the story of the creation of time in Ritchie's Autogenesis "remniscent of William Blake's nineteenth-century illustrations of Biblical subjects" (par. 3).

References

Drolet, Owen. "Matthew Ritchie interview." Urban Desires: A Magazine of Metropolitan Passions. 1.3 (March/April 1995). 21 Jan. 2007. <http://desires.com/1.3/Art/docs/ritchie.html>.

Silva, Melinda Rose. "Why the Hard Way Isn't so Difficult." Artlink. 21 Jan. 2007. <http://www.artlink.org/features/000004.html>.

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