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Taking chances: a portion of Matthew Ritchie’s Proposition Player at MASS MoCA.

Universal Art
By David Brickman

Matthew Ritchie: Proposition Player
MASS 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 craps table.

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 December.

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