New York

Matthew Ritchie

Basilico Fine Arts

With protagonists named Azazel, Penemue, and Mulciber locked in explosive battles against unseen forces and assuming, after death, other forms in new places, Matthew Ritchie’s paintings and drawings combine the visionary violence of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience with the high-action antics of a Power Rangers video. Entitled “The Hard Way,” this exhibition of seven paintings also included glossaries, character outlines, and a chart. How else to remember the names of the seven characters that Ritchie calls “watchers” and seven planets that the British-born, New York–based artist limned only to eliminate in his intricately conceived cosmos?

Ritchie’s paintings or, more accurately, wall pieces, appeared on first glance to be fantastic mappings, along the lines of Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström’s geographic models and games of the ’60s. Some were oil on canvas, others patched from cutouts of a painted linoleum-like plastic called Sintra. Once you figured out the direct correlation between the colors in the abstract paintings and those of the heroes’ bodies, a narrative began to take shape. The story was a continuation of the one outlined in “Working Model,” Ritchie’s last solo exhibition at the gallery, which introduced the watchers’ world, one that in “The Hard Way” appears to have run amok. (“Seven characters. Seven earths. Forty-nine ways to die” reads a wall text.) In this exhibition, the watchers, essentially reduced to abstractions, are evidently trying to find their way back to their old forms. Our heroes, at once the icons and the iconography of Ritchie’s work, were rendered in bold comic-book style in a pair of wall drawings. The glossary described Azazel as someone who “loved everything and everyone. He wanted to seduce you, to explore you, to conquer you . . . he had a tongue that was two feet long.” More engrossing details of this and other figures were provided in delicate ink-wash drawings, one suite for each of the seven figures, that were changed throughout the course of the exhibition. For those willing to delve into the minutiae of Ritchie’s arcane system, there was a chart showing the symbols and attributes of each “watcher.”

Armed with this knowledge, one could look at the paintings and see that encrypted within each work were seven forms: seven shaggy peninsulas for Seven Earths (all works 1996) met to form seven peaks of seven mountains in Trouble in Mind—a ground as teaming with action and stratagems as a military maneuver represented in minute detail. In the most impressive work in the show, Day Three, all of Ritchie’s worlds collided, resulting in a fragmented tableau composed of intricately cut plastic tiles that ran down the wall and spilled onto the floor.

Like any overwrought narrative framework, from the Book of the Dead to the tarot, the complex system that gives rise to Ritchie’s work can be somewhat alienating. Indeed, even more narrative layers exist than those presented here. This exhibition was conceived as part of a series of projects (based on the same figures) that were shown in Paris and Oslo and complemented by an online environment on äda ’web. Ritchie’s goal—to hunt down his bizarre cast of characters even if it means going inside his own brain—begins to sound like an elaborate excuse to pursue a personal vision at a time when postconceptual artistic practices predominate. And yet, his work is tempered by a sense of its own potential for absurdity: the entire production, the artist suggests, can be seen as just so much information. That is, there is enough irony in Ritchie’s positioning and deft handling of materials to make the plotting and various characters more ancillary than oppressive. What ultimately carries Ritchie’s art is his facility with painting— even when on plastic. This is the informational system the artist controls best and that reinvigorates his examination of the long-standing struggle between creation and chaos.

Ingrid Schaffner