New York

View of “Matthew Ronay,” 2011.

View of “Matthew Ronay,” 2011.

Matthew Ronay

Andrea Rosen Gallery

View of “Matthew Ronay,” 2011.

Whether framed as a strictly secular technical achievement or as the apotheosis of a kind of mystico-spiritual transference, the question of how one goes about successfully imbuing objects with meaning and power persists as a central challenge of artmaking. Matthew Ronay’s recent show at Andrea Rosen was quite explicitly aligned with the latter of these two conceptions, putting its bet down firmly on the side of creative magic. Dubbed “Between the Worlds,” it consisted of roughly thirty-eight individual works, nearly all of which were enlisted in the service of a single immersive, walk-in sculptural environment ripe with a range of archetypal “primitivist” formal motifs and ostensibly designed to call forth some sort of deep-seated psycho-emotional response. Whether you found your hidden springs unblocked by the experience was down to the degree to which you buy into Ronay’s latter-day shaman act—one whose mode of address stands somewhat shakily on the border between genuine sincerity and commitment and a kind of overearnestness that more skeptical viewers might mark as symptoms of either undiscerning infatuation or incipient irony.

The plausibility of the last diagnosis is to some extent a matter of history—especially for those who remember Ronay best as the artist he was straight out of grad school in the early to mid-2000s, when he made his name with slickly produced sculptural takes on abjection that giddily rammed sex, violence, and consumerism into each other to see what sort of meaning might spurt out. But his work took a dramatic turn near the end of the decade, and in the last few years he’s totally forsaken the mode of plastoid post-Pop that was previously his signature in favor of a return to (very) old-school basics: handcrafted symbolic objects in plain materials, totemic figures that evoke ancient rituals and fetishes. He’s even started to play the part, making videos featuring himself dressed in wild handmade costumes that suggest the elaborate masquerades of indigenous African or Oceanic religions.

In “Between the Worlds”—originally commissioned by and shown at San Antonio’s Artpace in 2010—Ronay brings together the full range of his new mythopoetic vocabulary in one great magickal Gesamtkunstwerk. Laid out like a vaguely spooky stage-set hollow, a rectangle of hallucinatory enchantment closed off from the rest of the gallery by a black scrim dotted with ritualistic white hash marks, Ronay’s forest of signs is packed with phallic stumps and vaginal oculi, cavelike dens, stalagmitic eruptions, dripping garlands of sculpted seedpods, and fallen trunks on which mushrooms (presumably magic ones) grow. And eyes, eyes, eyes everywhere: on trees and on treelike beings, as well as on the numerous owls that perch in branches amid the environment’s wood, fabric, and papier-mâché canopy.

Though each object is given its own title, this is indisputably an ensemble—the field of view is so strategically cluttered that individual sculptures are inevitably sacrificed to the overall array. The two exceptions were the towering Feminal Pillar, 2010, and Masculine Pillar, 2009, the latter of which—a nine-foot-tall tepee-ish structure topped with a crescent/horn thing that’s a dead ringer for the eye of Mordor—was occupied by the artist himself during the opening reception. This gesture makes an intriguing contrast with a move in which the pre–road to Damascus Ronay had a porn star come and rub herself on the various sculptures included in his show at his Los Angeles gallery in order, he once told a writer, to “infect the sculpture with this energy of replacing your sexuality with something non-living.” That Ronay in the same interview described the process as akin to “adding a lock of boar’s hair to a cauldron” makes clear that even then he was accessing the language of the supernatural. Yet whether his ultimate position is that of a true believer, or simply a smitten treasure-hunter temporarily gone “native” in exotic lands, is by no means settled.

Jeffrey Kastner