Mathew Ritchie’s work is exciting for the way it smoothly combines painting and sculpture with Conceptual Art, with installation, publication and even performance, yet remains anchored to fundamental issues of depiction and abstraction. The work provides a potent nexus of interests and has triggered his rapid rise, really just within this century. Most comment focuses on his use of divers scientific models or diagrams, blended with topical issues, historical scholarship, mythic cosmology and amusing personification, with the spread from work to work, for paintings, from wall to floor and ceiling, to site-specific temporary murals, free standing models, websites, audience participation there, online and hard copy publications and last year at Andrea Rosen, NY (The Universal Adversary]), to animation and sound tracks activated by motion sensors (a longer description of this show is found in January’s Art in America (p.136).
Predictably, the effect is overwhelming, even stifling and critics quickly suspect the web of science and scholarship; grow impatient with the perfunctory illustration and endless text extensions. But sometimes one does well to attend to style before jumping to conclusions about substance. It may be that the conspicuous complexity in what is being said or represented here are better thought of as a way of saying or showing something surprisingly simple and familiar.
To begin, there is Ritchie’s pictorial style, which offers a (mostly) three-dimensional model of abstract powers and relations, together with cursory notation. The pictures are of abstractions, without quite being abstract pictures (on this point see also Post 14). Ritchie’s models are also notably biomorphic in depicting strictly matters of geometry and physics, and this hints at a certain priority (see as well Post 2). His pictures are sketchy or thin, literally and emotionally, or metaphorically (see God of Catastrophe 2006).
Both qualities give his pictures a tentative, restless feel. But what ought to look comic or cartoon-like – keeping pace with his prose - never quite graduates beyond arrows and arabesques. The prospect of say, a version of Roger Penrose by Chuck Jones (or vice versa) goes unfulfilled. Where figures and the concrete in depiction loom, Ritchie’s work turns strangely gauche or reluctant. See for example the figures of Kokabel or Kashdejah from The Hard Way. The look, if anything, is closer to Power Rangers Meet Giacometti (see also the cover to The Father Costume. When confronted by figure or person, Ritchie’s drawing is suddenly bereft of flair or style, expresses just this hesitation, minimises the threat through grander schemes.
Another contrast is offered by the work of Paul Laffoley, currently showing at Kent, NY. Laffoley also revels in the arcane and esoteric, draws together diverse branches of science and scholarship, yet resorts to emphatic borders and strict proportion in accommodating diagram. The sheer disparity of reference there urges an exercise in enormous control and precision; becomes as much an exercise in such presentation as the collected content. For Ritchie, the opposite is true. The abstract model is an opportunity for flight, literally and metaphorically, from more troubling, concrete matters (see A Glorious Martyrdom Awaits Us… 2003). Work projects endless extensions to other works and texts, reaches out in all directions. ‘Reaching out’ becomes the underlying theme, along with its frustration or evasion, the sense of being cut adrift. For while the model stands for much more than is ever available in any one work, the pattern is unmistakeably one of deliberate dispersal, distance and delay. The model takes on a more psychological dimension.
The great seething conundrums depicted are perhaps easier seen as desperate efforts to establish or maintain prestigious contact, even superiority, to compensate for more concrete and corporeal failure. They never quite succeed; instead stress the struggle for grounding. The impressive learning spreads attention far and wide, distracts from shortcomings closer to home, the absence in person, frailty of personality and picture. Concrete depiction can never quite anchor the sprawling network of abstraction. On the one hand the work reaches out for meaning, on the other holds it at arm’s length. The frustration is undeniably registered by the viewer, is really at the heart of the work, perhaps before realising. The work enacts an old play with power at the cost of the particular and personal. Ritchie’s work not only participates in this, but convincingly displays it, stylistically; deserves a place at the fore of the current art world.