Matthew Ritchie at L&M Arts, Los Angeles
A few months ago a dear friend Rob Ziebell posted a picture on FaceBuch of a hay bale elevated by some steel armature in a field in Texas. His Caption read First Place Sculpture Division. In an act of snarky commentary, which I’m prone to especially on FB, I commented: “Now do it twenty times in a grid pattern!” The artistic trope of variation on a theme has indeed become a hallmark of contemporary art. It may have all begun with Monet’s serial approach to paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, his luminous Haystacks and his later Water Lilies. Where ever it began, the paradigm has been absorbed into both the art making and art viewing public. In modern or contemporary art history there are few if any one-hit-wonders.
Which brings us elegantly to the problems of the recently opened Matthew Ritchie exhibition at L&M Arts in Venice. I have liked Ritchie’s multi-media systematic circus in the past. His willingness to explore a range of executions exploding his chosen intellectual ideas past the canvas and onto to the walls, floors and ceilings of galleries seemed energetic and engaging. The earmarks of a profitable art career were all there. Conceptual and intellectual underpinnings that make for a good press release–Check. Sellable works of art that commodify the artistic paradigm–Check. A visible technical attention to detail and elegant execution that speaks to professionalism–Check. Veiled yet not opaque references to multi-cultural source material–Check.
Walking through the current Ritchie exhibition the aforementioned list can be dutifully checked off in short order. But the overall effect is one of repetition rather than variation and there’s a grave difference. For anyone who has not seen a previous Ritchie exhibition, the paradigm might indeed seem fresh, original and relevant. But for those who may have seen even only one painting, the show falls flat and the drone of repetitive execution drowns out any mark of true aesthetic investigation.
The paintings and sculpture suffer most. The paintings in a range of illusionist daubs of oil and splashes of spray and occasional grafitted islamic text might work when one sees one but the collection defies retinal pleasure. Nine examples inhabit the West Gallery and six populate the East Gallery. Both the palette of and the touch on the paintings come off like backgrounds from a Frank Frazetta sci-fi illustration. All that’s missing is an overly ripped Conan-like warrior and an equally overly chesty nymph. Once again, it’s less the painting’s gestalt that I have issue with than the machine like repetition that’s in evidence. Variations on a theme should prove cumulatively engrossing. Each should stand on its own but the collection should reveal a whole greater than the sum of the parts quality. The sculptures (only two–one in the west gallery and one on the east lawn) are equally soulless having been plasma cut from sheets of steel. The lace like forms are computer generated patterns and assembled in a fractal-based building block pattern in differing scales. They have neither the polished sheen of their manufacturing nor the improvisational riffing of their supposed compositions.
The element of the exhibition that does work are vinyl appliques that are affixed to the walls, window and floor of the East Gallery and act as vignette frames for the often awkward video animations. This I still find engaging, especially in a landscape of artists who believe that film and video is as easy to practice as any other medium. The distorted texture of the digitally grainy video acts as a nice contrapuntal note to the patterns of his fractal imagery.
I go into any exhibition with an uncommon willingness to like some thing. My suspension of disbelief is firmly in place when I walk through any door of a gallery or Museum. It’s as though my aesthetic curiosity is calling out “I dare you to please me.” In this instance I was disappointed. Is the exhibition worth seeing regardless? Yes. But unlike many artists out there, the more you see the less you may like it.
For more on Matthew Ritchie I suggest the glossy segment produced by Art21.
Update Posted December 19th: For an instructive example where variations on a theme produces individual works of substance and a whole greater than the sum of the parts check out my Post on Richmond Burton at George Lawson Gallery. The differences are dramatic.
Matthew Ritchie Monstrance at L&M Arts Venice has been extended through January 12th, 2012.
–Mario M. Muller, November 7th, 2011, Los Angeles