New York

Matthew Ritchie

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Matthew Ritchie is a self-professed cosmologist, a connoisseur of information structures whose templates include action painting, superstring theory, medieval hagiographies, molecular biology, and comic books. Though his paintings and installations bear individual titles, they are best understood as multidimensional or exploded facets of a single (impossible) master image, a unified field that heeds no distinctions between seen objects and conceptually unbounded themes. Critics dutifully recite the back story to this elaborate oeuvre: The artist invented a pantheon of forty-nine elements or archangels or superheroes, whose interactions catalyze a private universe apprehended in the work on view. Ritchie’s pieces are positioned rhetorically as images barely coalesced from a primordial soup of intellectual reference. But the plots and theories are not, finally, the pivotal aspect of his work—nor, I would venture, does he intend them to be. The narrative matrix is, for the most part, invisible, while the real program unfolds before your eyes. Counterintuitively, with Matthew Ritchie what you see is what you get.

Ritchie’s recent exhibition was titled “After Lives,” and the project is a Last Judgment of sorts, relying on the hallmarks of such scenes, with tortured figures flitting through landscapes both apocalyptic and harmonious. Barely legible notation in black marker includes science-y phrases like BABY UNIVERSES and A + B FEEDBACK LOOP, while a bull’s eye motif and a recurring intestine shape weave through mountains and whirlpools. Meanwhile, a wall drawing in scrawled black acrylic extends behind After Lives (all works 2002), the most obviously figurative of the five paintings, and blurs into Off the Hook, a mural in sintra and enamel that spills onto the floor and has metal spears sticking out of it. Even viewers who have never perused the archive of critical and promotional writing on Ritchie could discern a cycle of redemption and decay. The forces of earth, air, fire, and water are indicated, as are illusionistic landscape basics like distance, texture, and scale—backgrounds turn atmospheric; water looks choppy, etc. These vaguely terrestrial settings are painted in a loose, confident hand, with each panel composed into a tableau of upheaval. Splattered around the room, heroic in scope, and sometimes deliberately silly, “After Lives” presents a choreographed pageant of chaos.

The point of a cosmology, after all, is pattern. Good myths harness mystery as part of the overarching scheme, must explain why pockets of the inexplicable are necessary. Ritchie enjoys this world-building game and knows how to drop visual hints—cryptic notation, round-eyed golems—suggesting infinite powers roiling behind the scrim of human comprehension. Whether all this lavish entropy is sponsored by the armies of Jehovah, the laws of thermodynamics, or kryptonite ultimately doesn’t matter. They amount to the same thing in Ritchie’s universe, where God does play at dice, because the only faith to be had rests in a hyperinformatics or game theory, via which any component can be recombined with every other, scribbled on or underwritten by reams of code that aren’t meant to be deciphered. Last Judgments traditionally served to educate the illiterate about biblical teleology, and to give body to concepts—such as the end of the world or the meaning of life—that are always simultaneously inscrutable and intuitively already understood. Isn’t this exactly the relationship we have now with the omnipresent, omnipotent, omnivorous demiurge called information?

Frances Richard