After his show closes to the public this week, Matthew Ritchie ought to bolt the doors at Andrea Rosen, move in, and spend as much time as he can figuring out how to make good on the promise and possibilities of his fourth solo outing in New York. Nearly every element on view could be intensified until it bloomed into something stunning.
Ritchie has turned the gallery into a walk-in painting. A cosmological lightbox sits in the entryway. All the walls are painted a creamy yellow, dappled with doodles, diagrams, and kooky slogans like “You may already be a winner.” An immense collage slithers off one wall. A cross between Hokusai’s Great Wave and a computer rendition of a cave painting, it depicts a whiplashing undulation, a green cyclone, scribbles, and an exploding ovum spewing serpentine tentacles. A little, bumpy floor-thing extends in front of it. Four paintings brim with quasi-biomorphic, geometric shapes, weird mathematical formulas, and allusions to all sorts of theories and mythologies. The whole thing’s like some private chapel of the birth of the universe.
With this show, Ritchie, 36, delves deeper into the scientific-mystic world he’s been developing since 1995. The paintings are more fun to look at, and look like they were more fun to make. They’re looser; colors are brighter; compositions aren’t as hard-edged or jigsaw-like. Thankfully, cartoon characters are on the wane. Most important, the elements that surround the paintings create a unifying updraft. All this comes as a relief, for as original as Ritchie’s previous work was, it could also be monotonous, mechanical, and dry.
In 1967, Sol LeWitt said he wanted the idea to become “a machine that makes art.” Ritchie takes this notion to the nth degree. Ritchie’s painting machine is a condensation of fantasy, physics, alchemy, and God knows what. The juiciest thing about it is that it seems to have a mind and a metabolism of its own. It generates pictures, shapes, iconographies, story lines, characters, and compositions he probably can’t predict. The knock on him is that without an explanation, you can’t get his work. Reviewers use words like indecipherable, complicated, or obscure to describe his art. The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl says he thinks Ritchie’s playing a cagey game of “For me to know and you never to find out.”
I disagree. In the first place, art isn’t something you get. You don’t get Johns’s Flag, a bunch of dots by Kusama, or Kara Walker’s cutouts. Additionally, if you look at Ritchie’s exhibition, patterns emerge. Every work is an elaboration on every other work. Everything’s connected. Follow any one element, shape, or character, and kingdoms of possibility open up.
Take the color red. A number of crimson bumps or barnacles grow on the wall mural’s blue tentacles. Whatever they are, one of these clusters appears in M Theory, a painting which depicts this red mass spewing all sorts of bizarre shapes, rainbows, and globules. A nearby work, Anti-City, picks up on this eruption as a series of upside-down obelisks and greenish chips that issue out of the underside of the red shape. The outcome of all this can be seen in one of three works titled Parents and Children, in which the little chips coalesce into a planetoid that sprouts three tree forms. One is a kind of burning bush encircled by a yellow tornado; another is inscribed with the names of various plants; the last features the names of animal life-forms written on its trunk, proceeding from sponges, mollusks, fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and Neanderthals to us—Homo sapiens.
Without explanation, Ritchie’s work adds up. His themes are grand—the beginning and the end of time—but his package is zestful and accessible. It’s fun to muse along with him. As far as we know, the universe was born 10 to 15 billion years ago. Ten to the 43rd of a second later, gravity came into being. Ten to the fifth of a second after this, light appeared. A minute later, neutrons and protons began coalescing into elements. Five billion ago, the earth was formed. Simple DNA occurred about 3.3 billion years after that. Then, 40,000 years ago—after a lot of this and that—we happened: Homo sapiens became the only surviving humanoid species on earth. Whether it’s hubris, absurdity, mumbo jumbo, or wishful thinking, that’s the time frame and the subject of this exhibition.
Yet for all his ambition, this show suggests Ritchie could go much further. Although he handles Rosen’s soaring space as ingeniously as anyone since Wolfgang Tillmans, things feel a little incomplete. The lightbox isn’t integrated into the exhibition, the floor feels puny, the space a bit barren. Ritchie is interested in never-ending stories, in the Gesamtkunstwerk, and abstraction. He wants painting to do a lot. But he doesn’t do a lot to the surfaces of his paintings; he’s never so much as sewn a button to his canvases. Contrary to complaints of complexity, Ritchie could cover galleries with wild, wavy walk-on floors; wall murals could envelop whole spaces; ceilings could come into play; who knows what he could do with the lightboxes. In terms of intellect and cleverness, Ritchie is one of the more promising painters around. Still, that ingenuity needs to be converted into something more purely visual. A bastard child of synthetic cubism and conceptualism, he has found a way to make art about big things. His work is out there. He just needs to take it further out.