Los Angeles

Matthew Ronay

Marc Foxx Gallery

In previous outings at this gallery and elsewhere, Matthew Ronay deployed sculptural objects with a smart, pop sheen that nearly disguised the works as products of mass manufacture: for example, Wiping Away Drips Obsolete, 2005, in which two blue Hula-hoops stacked in a corner are each draped with a used condom—all fastidiously crafted by the artist—or Obese Eclipsed Cock, 2005, in which two stacked, arcing cartoonish male members inflicted with bite marks align with a quintet of hamburgers climbing a thin brown plank that leans against the wall. At first glance, these specific objects, typically made from painted wood or MDF, would seem to be more likely found at Toys “R” Us—somewhere in the vicinity of Mr. Potato Head—if the thematics weren’t so blatantly “adult,” here meaning they possess as much dark, violent, and depressing allegorical content as explicit sexuality.

Of course, sex and death are easily found in the toy store, too, but they are typically sublimated, whereas in Ronay’s work these themes were easily found at or near the surface. However, his recent exhibition, titled “is the shadow,” marked a dramatic shift away from the slick, plastic look of such past work with a rejection of most recognizable subject matter in favor of recognizably handcrafted objects that flirt with primitive symbols and ambiguous archetypes. Similarly, Ronay’s familiar Crayola colors gave way, overwhelmingly, to a subdued palette of black, white, and gray.

Four large, wall-bound “cloaks” and four floor-based sculptures occupied the main gallery. Double Cloak of Stars (all works 2009), with its bilateral symmetry, two head holes resembling “eyes,” and arrays of painted feathers that double as tears, suggests a simplified face; the hanging garment is accompanied by two matching black hoods and a tall, carved walnut pole that leans against the wall. Despite the range of materials—black-painted cotton fabric, fiber rush, waxed cord, plastic, wood—the decorated assemblage, hanging on a wall, invariably evokes painting without fully relinquishing Ronay’s ongoing sculptural concerns. Evidence of the artist’s hand also makes the considerable labor in fabricating this work readily visible to the viewer.

The other cloaks each feature one hole—still suggesting eyes—and are paired with a single hood. In four short YouTube videos (which are not in the show but are mentioned in the press materials), the garments are worn by one or two people—whose heads poke through the holes and are covered by the hoods—performing simple, ritualistic movements. The videos reveal little, further complicating the charged position of the cloaks themselves, which now must be considered in relation to performance, as well as to painting and sculpture.

The four floor sculptures also allude to ritual. Various objects are neatly piled on paper-thin rectangular bases that recall prayer mats: Protective Eyes features an unfinished pyramid formation of simplified eyes, Transmitter a bundle of carved wooden staffs that suggest Brancusi’s Endless Column. Ronay has recently indicated his interest in the theories of Carl Jung, and the objects in the show evince an obvious concern for archetypes, allying the artist with figures from Gauguin to Picasso to Pollock, all of whom sought out the primitive as a paradoxical way of renewing the modernist project. But I doubt Ronay is consciously seeking to position himself in such illustrious company: Who needs the pressure? Given Ronay’s interest in scrappy materials, decorative repetitions, and performative intimations, one might just as well situate him alongside a handful of Los Angeles–based peers such as Mindy Shapero, Ry Rocklen, and Alice Könitz (despite his New York zip code). But regardless of these apparent affinities, new and old, Ronay’s work is in transition, and the potent impact of these initial offerings demonstrates why beginning anew is such a time-honored tradition.

Michael Ned Holte