James Aldridge “Blackened” @ David Risley Gallery
Two skeletal arms reach up from the bottom corner of Sacrifice, stretching upwards into the heart of the canvas. They look gruesome, as if they recently unearthed themselves from their grave. Acting as a guide, these bone-y hands lead us through the visual mash-up of James Alridge’s work where symbolically rich animal imagery such as the crow, the wolf, and a goat’s head are layered with trees, branches, and a myriad of skulls. By constructing this layered symbolic world, Aldridge eludes to contemporary society’s displacement and disconnection to nature. It’s a new kind of landscape: one the embraces the inherent terror and the beauty, the strength and the vulnerable, the light and the dark. Consider this the new Gothic Romanticism.
Four black-and-white paper-cuts are juxtaposed with three large-scale acrylic paintings in Blackened, Aldridge’s second solo show at David Risley and the last exhibition at the gallery before it relocates to Copenhagen in early 2009. The paper-cuts are stark and precise; a combination of the romance and eeriness of Victorian-era silhouettes/paper cuts with a contemporary graphic sensibility. For instance, Dead Raven could quite possibly be the death of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Nevermore” raven who slowly taunted its host into madness. The Black Goat, a stand-out in the show, prominently features the legendary pagan symbol of the goat’s head in the foreground amongst flocks of ravens, spider webs, and two menacing skulls. In his paintings, Aldridge incorporates sweeping painterly, often abstract, gestures with the same graphical quality seen in the paper pieces. These gestures and imagery layers break apart the perspective to create a complicated landscape. The usage of bright colors illuminate the somber imagery. In Black Mouth the bone-hand tour guide resurfaces again, pointing us to a long-haired skeleton whose eyes emanate a pink seducing mist. The aforementioned Sacrifice is a contemporary Danse Macabre.
It’s clear that Aldridge absorbs the influence of his environment – he lives on the edge of a dark forest in Southern Sweden and the soundtrack to his painting is Black Metal and its various sub-genres. In fact the terms “Blackened” derives from the hybrid created by Death Metal and Black Metal. Never fear though, you don’t need to be “in the know” to comprehend. His work is not a literal narrative translation such as Banks Violette’s “Untitled” burnt church installation at the Whitney Museum in 2005 or the documentary photography by Peter Beste of the Norwegian black metal subculture. Without knowing this musical influence or its infamous history (painted faces, burned churches, loud decibels, theatricality, death) the over-arching melancholy manifested within the work is inescapable. This is exactly where the Aldridge succeeds; encapsulating a mood without being blatant or over-the-top. His paper cuts and paintings are, to use a distasteful word in contemporary art language, beautiful. They are haunting, mysterious, and though not particularly narrative they still emit a thrilling folklore tale of our own imagination. And in an age where we seem to distance ourselves from nature, it’s lovely to see an artist returning to this sense of achingly romantic notions involving landscape, death, and life.
Image: James Aldridge – Sacrifice, 2008