New York

Matthew Ritchie

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Don’t think of Matthew Ritchie’s work as painting, exactly. It’s more a collection of grandiose narrative schemata and possibly crackpot notions involving science, theology, information theory, and who knows what else. Sure, painted canvases play a conspicuous role, and these are both striking and intricate, with their puzzlelike aggregations of colored shapes, nervous draftsmanship, and annotations in black marker. They are mostly nonrepresentational, it would seem, though there is a bit of recognizable imagery, too: For instance, one of several works titled (like the show as a whole) Parents and Children (all works 2000) appears to show a male figure with skulls floating above his head ascending a rocky crag crowned by a bare tree. But for all their visual hyperactivity, Ritchie’s paintings seem unconcerned with visually embodying the meanings they conceptually encode. They are essentially abstract illustrations.

The compositions are pretty much Expressionism 101: lots of tumultuous swirls related by dynamic diagonals to the rectangle. They’re filled with what Sheldon Cheney, whose book Expressionism in Art is said to have been a bible in the studios of the ’50s, praised in El Greco as a “counterplay of fluctuating planes and flame-like undulations.” But Ritchie’s execution is counter-Expressionist in its tightness and linearity. The result of this mix is, to my eye, an odd sort of tinniness: Like the diagrammatic notations that accompany them on the surrounding walls, the paintings give the impression of being blowups, perhaps meant to reveal all those finicky little details that would have been too hard to see at their true scale.

What makes Ritchie’s work interesting is that the text being “illustrated” is accessible only to the artist. Not that it’s “private” in either the Wittgensteinian or the everyday sense. As I discovered in conversation with him at one of his previous shows, Ritchie is happy to explain what he had in mind while making his pictures. In fact, the adventures of the forty-nine characters that interact in his allegorical scheme are woven together out of so many strands that making the paintings may be the only way to keep track of them. In other words, the art seems to serve as a mnemonic device for something outside itself. Ritchie’s work is close in method to that of a number of contemporaries who use hermetic narrative constructs and self-made mythographies to sustain ongoing bodies of work on a heroic scale—most obviously Matthew Barney and Bonnie Collura.

An uninitiated viewer might not suspect any of this, seeing only an idiosyncratic abstract style, but the work’s thematic ambitions are clear enough, if only from the inscriptions both in the paintings and on the wall: “folded space-time continuum,” “absolute complexity,” “you may already be a winner,” “amino acids.” The paintings themselves (and a large light-box transparency at the gallery entrance) are big, complicated, and so overflowing with energy that the imagery literally spills off them into the room, not only onto the walls but also onto the floor, in a brightly colored structure that moves out from a huge wall painting. Perhaps this is simply a roundabout way of getting at modernist autonomy and self-referentiality—a form of abstraction that works not by reducing but by overloading content. It certainly gives Ritchie’s work an opacity that seems quite specific to itself. And yet all the furious movement seems to be going nowhere fast.

Barry Schwabsky