chances: a portion of Matthew Ritchies Proposition
Player at MASS MoCA.
Ritchie: Proposition Player
MoCA, through spring 2005
Matthew Ritchie is very possibly the most ambitious artist
working today. Hyperbole, you think? Well, consider that the
subject of Proposition Player, now on view at MASS
MoCA, is nothing less than the history of the universe, and
you might agree.
Does he pull it off? No one possibly could, but he does create
an engaging and visually rigorous installation that operates
on many levels and will surely please gallerygoers from all
walks of life.
Presented as a game of chance, Proposition Player begins
when the visitor enters and is handed a playing card. The
card is from a deck designed by Ritchie that closely resembles
a normal 52-card set, but figures, words and formulas derived
from his drawings augment the suits and values.
My card, the ace of clubs, was explained as representing growth;
it also had printed on it “THE GRAVITATIONAL FORCE / HIGGS
BOSON” in one corner and “G / CONSTANT OF GRAVITATION =,”
followed by a mathematical formula, in the other corner. Armed
with my card, I went in to the exhibition’s first room, where
an elaborate electronic craps table awaits the participant’s
roll of a pair of plastic, dinosaur-bone dice.
Accompanied by a spooky, ethereal soundtrack (thankfully,
the only aural part of the show) and vivid animated projections
of Ritchie’s drawings, the table automatically reads the roll
and, with enough good ones, changes the level of the game
(there are five, all explained on a wall chart). This process
reminded me of video games with their varying levels of difficulty
and/or mastery built in; I assume it is meant to engage the
attuned sensibilities of the electronic generation.
While the fun-house atmosphere and visual and audio pyrotechnics
of this display were impressive, this exercise only set the
stage for what followed, which was much more like walking
through a traditional gallery exhibition, except that the
drawings, paintings and sculptures, as well as wall and floor
pieces, all bore a sharp visual relationship to the universe
described in the setup of the game. And, with or without the
sensationalistic intro, this rambling but coherent installation
provides a fascinating experience of immersion into the very
complex mind of Matthew Ritchie.
Born in London and now living in New York, Ritchie is full
of the energy and conviction of a young artist in full, mid-career
stride. No medium defies his grasp, though he is known primarily
as a painter. Spilling across and through seven connected
spaces on the first floor of the cavernous museum, Proposition
Player features drawings on Denril (a vellum-like material),
paintings on canvas, acrylic wall drawings, freestanding aluminum
and steel sculptures, a rubber and Tyvek floor piece, a vinyl
window decal and a two-way photo reproduction of images mounted
to a lenticular panel, in addition to the aforementioned electronic
What’s amazing is how well this cacophony of media holds together—even
passing through and around walls. The largest (and most central)
room in the chain is so tall and oblong as to confound most
exhibit designs, but this piece uses it perfectly (especially
as evidenced by the view from a second-floor balcony, from
which the horizontal floor pieces are better appreciated).
One has many choices of how to navigate Proposition Player;
for example, you could just concentrate on the paintings in
one run-through (there are 10, all about 8-feet high and from
9- to 14-feet wide), then go back and instead pay attention
to the wall drawings (which are entirely black and enormous,
as well as enormously complicated). I attempted to see it
all in one slow sweep, following a numerical path that proceeds
with reasonable logic from beginning to end, taking in the
connecting flow of it all more than any particular details.
But details abound—and clues to meaning for the intellectually
curious. Additionally, the individual works all have titles,
many of them highly evocative, such as Where I’m Coming
From, The Hierarchy Problem, Coffin Weather
and my particular favorite, A Glorious Martyrdom Awaits
Us All at the Hands of Our Tender and Merciful God. Sounds
brutally ironic, but not necessarily: Ritchie’s vision of
the universe is one of big bang followed by relentless cycles
of death and rebirth on a grand scale. There isn’t a whole
lot of room for sentimentality—or human beings for that matter—when
you’re dealing in the larger issues of weather and physics,
math and infinity, time and space.
These references typify the complexity of Ritchie’s art; it
should come as no surprise that his educational background
featured a lot of math and science before he became a painter.
But he’s more than an alchemist or a shaman (though he is
clearly comfortable in the role of either); Ritchie the artist
has got chops aplenty, using form, color, line and gesture
to activate pleasure and interest from the basic foundation
of the visual. He also has a highly original vocabulary of
signs, symbols and shapes that border on the cartoonish (think
a grown-up Kenny Scharf) but also reveal the influence of
more classical image sources.
The scientific references found here make Ritchie part of
a broad trend in contemporary art in which artists produce
works of pseudo-science, often with tongue firmly planted
in cheek; worse yet, many times it only amounts to pseudo-art.
However, in Ritchie’s case, it seems to be both sincere and
valid—though my ability to judge higher math and science is
naught, so don’t take my word for it. Still, the impression
is not of a poser, and Ritchie’s consummate skill with the
various media he employs supports that interpretation.
A companion exhibition to Matthew Ritchie’s Proposition
Player will open at MASS MoCA on Saturday (June 19). Picturing
the Cosmos: Images from Genesis to String Theory will
feature mythological and scientific books and ephemera directly
related to Ritchie’s iconography. It will remain on view through