New York

Matthew Ronay

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Visitors who read a review before seeing Matthew Ronay’s first solo exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery, or who had the temerity to ask questions of the gallery employees, were likely treated to some of the fantastical stories the artist invents to accompany his sculptures. The works in this show, titled “It’s An Uprising!” are, purportedly, three-dimensional illustrations of a mythical future landscape with an underclass populated by, among others, severed limbs that act autonomously; mentally challenged people who can divine water sources; and a man with a five-headed penis who, because his proletarian virility makes him a target of recently deposed leaders aiming to stem the proliferation of their former subjects, is forced to dress in drag. Wordy yet ultimately inscrutable titles such as Cat’s Butt Hole in Role of Heaven in Reverse Rapture, 2004, hint at this intriguingly kooky tale, which itself represents the outpouring of a relentlessly inventive mind. Whether or not you buy into Ronay’s story—for each object here one is forced to do a lot of legwork—at the very least it gives some narrative coherence to the works on view.

But those not privy to Ronay’s yarn-spinning—in other words, the overwhelming majority of visitors to the show—must have had a difficult time figuring out what to make of his agglomerations of small, brightly colored objects made of painted wood and/or MDF. Each of these looks like something borrowed from a painting by Tom Wesselmann or John Wesley, or a readymade appropriated from the shelves of a Bizarro World Toys ’R’ Us. Scattered across the floor, the visual juxtapositions they create are whimsical and inspired, proving that Ronay possesses a fantastic eye for color and form. But so adept is he at manipulating his two primary materials that every piece soon begins to look alike and craft almost becomes a nonissue.

In his earlier sculptures, Ronay often aligned each individual object more or less along an axis, implying causality—this object does this to that object, and so on. By contrast, this show’s willful randomness sowed confusion (one work, for example, was split into five parts and dispersed around the gallery). It was hard not to ask why, in narrative terms, the mummified hands that shoot lightning bolts at fir trees shouldn’t have been paired with the stack of money in a nearby piece, or why the “retard” next to a water fountain couldn’t sidle up to the Rolling Stones–style grinning mouth in another work. The sculptures’ toylike quality encourages the impulse to play with them, and this may be part of the point, given Ronay’s apparent reluctance to prescribe a path through his exhibition.

Ronay has cited the re-envisioning of the traditional novel carried out by Italo Calvino and nouveau roman authors as an influence. Calvino, writing in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1966, outlined a significant problem in comparing the visual medium of cinema to the novel: “The ability to vary the distance between the camera and the object . . . makes for a notable difference between cinema and oral or written narrative, in which the distance between language and image is always the same.” The interchangeable nature of Ronay’s objects can be seen as an attempt to bridge that gap—to make each object like a word in a sentence—but his reticence in revealing authorial intent leaves the viewer with precariously little to hold on to. We move through the gallery, zooming in (like a camera) on a bubbling water fountain, a banana, or a severed leg, but we are ill-equipped to piece any of it together. Unconventional narratives are prevalent in video, film, and fiction, but are less frequently deployed by object-makers. The irresistible conclusion here was that Ronay should make his tales more explicit, allowing viewers to assess not only his works’ formal attributes but also his experiments in storytelling.

Brian Sholis