2804-July/August 2004

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The complex foolishness of Miami‚s Westen Charles
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Matthew Ritchie‚s Dream Universe

By Alix Ohlin

God may not play dice with the universe, but Matthew Ritchie does. Born in London in 1964 and now living in New York, Ritchie‚s increasingly popular and critically acclaimed work combines myriad elementsųscientific processes, religious symbols and decks of cards, to name a fewųinto a swirling, chaotic portrait of the world as we know it. By turns playful and profound, his art presents life as a game we have no choice but to play, and that we win or lose less by skill than by chance.

Matthew Ritchie, Giant Time (detail), 2003, oil and marker on canvas, 99 by 132 inches (photo by Arjen Noordeman
courtesy MASS MoCA).

Like all Ritchie‚s oeuvre, the art in his current show, „Proposition Player,š draws from a „working model,š a sort of preliminary chart devised by the artist in the late nineties. For several years, rather than making art, Ritchie was employed as a building superintendent and read voraciously on a wide variety of topics; the working model derives from these autodidactic years and comprises forty-nine elements divided into seven groups of seven. In addition to representing a specific character, each element denotes a specific physics attribute and property. These characters and their interactions provide a narrative that underlies the art in „Proposition Playerš; they appear on the canvases, in drawings, on a deck of cards that hangs from each painting and in a craps table that Ritchie has set up and at which viewers can roll dice to move through levels of a game according to intricate rules devised by the artist.

These elements also appear in short stories that accompany the exhibit. In other words, what you see on display is only the tip of the iceberg, beneath which lies an entire storytelling universe. Entering the exhibit is like walking into the bedroom of an imaginative child who has played alone for a very long time, creating a fantasy world peopled with well-known friends and governed by its own strange but strict laws.

Matthew Ritchie, Proposition Player, 2003, powder-coated aluminum, Minicel foam, rubber, adhesive, electronic components, one pair cast resin dice, custom-designed deck of cards, 42 by 42 by 98 inches
(photo by Arjen Noordeman
courtesy MASS MoCA).


The story being told in this fantasy world can be understood on a number of levels. For one, it recounts a scientific narrative of origins: the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present. Ritchie also describes this history as a metaphor for the construction of art. He has, further, characterized his work as „pictures of thinking.š And indeed, the paintings most directly seem to depict consciousness itself. In the landscape of „Proposition Player,š competing and even contradictory ideas about the world appear and overlap on the same planeųjust as they often do in our minds. Scientific symbols are graphed alongside phrases from gambling and pictures from the tarot; human figures stand immersed in a murky atmosphere that could denote weather systems, technology or religious beliefs. The result depicts contemporary society less so than our condition of living in it. If the body has long been a great subject of art, Ritchie‚s art lays bare the processes of the mind; it represents the mental nude.

Though the exhibit consists of sculpture, light boxes and other elements, the core of the show, in terms of both narrative pull and number, is a group of paintings Ritchie calls „The Main Sequence.š These large paintings, in oil and marker on canvas, center on chaotic and beautiful swarms of color, inside which a host of visual elements meet and interact: tubes, clouds, bubbles, human figures and handwriting that may or may not illuminate the subject. Repeated among them is a limited paletteųdark red, light yellow, pale blueųas are a variety of symbols and phrases. The swarms resemble weather formations, scientific diagrams, cartoon illustrations and landscapes all at once.

Matthew Ritchie, The Eighth Sea, 2002, oil and marker on canvas,
99 by 121 inches
(photo by Arjen Noordeman courtesy MASS MoCA).

Like other contemporary artists such as Julie Mehretu and the late Mark Lombardi, Ritchie seems intent on giving visual form to information. The paintings show us what it‚s like to live in a world where information (whether concerning science, technology, society or culture) circulates constantly around us, affecting us in ways we can‚t always visualize, much less understand. But Ritchie‚s work doesn‚t so much map types of information so that we can trace their connections as collapse them into a world of his own making. Making things intelligible is evidently not his goal; the relations between his charactersųthey are grouped into sets called the Wanderers and the Gamblers, and have names like Astoreth, Satan-el and Abaddonųare almost mind-bogglingly complex. By creating a symbolic, self-contained universe, Ritchie bears a certain kinship to Matthew Barney. (Though Barney‚s symbology can often seem private, closed off to the viewerųno one but Barney knows what the characters and events in the Cremaster films mean, even if one can guess. Ritchie, by contrast, lays out his references, almost to excess, in the source material that he presents and catalogues alongside the exhibit, so that everyone can follow the narrative.)

Fortunately, appreciating Ritchie‚s work doesn‚t require reading all the stories and deciphering each symbol. The paintings are beautifulųand meaningfulųeven without recourse to the elaborate background narrative. Take, for example, Self-Portrait in 2064, a large oil and marker painting in shades of red, brown, light blue and yellow. It presents a kind of storm cloud amidst masses of red and brown waves. Half-buried inside this cloud, a human figure stretches diagonally across the canvas, seemingly dissolving. Partly skeletal, partly muscular, the body could be a figure in an anatomy textbook, with layers of skin and flesh stripped away to reveal the processes and systems beneath. The effect is violent, like the spectacular deaths in a comic book.

Matthew Ritchie,
Self-Portrait in 2064, 2001,
oil and marker on canvas,
80 by 100 inches
(courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery; ©Matthew Ritchie).


Surrounding the body are circular shapes that look like eggs or eyes and that appear throughout „Proposition Player,š apparently referring to Lorenz attractors. Named for Ed Lorenz, an early proponent of chaos theory, these doubled, circular shapes represent the equations behind Lorenz‚ main discovery: that minor variations at the beginning of a system can result in dramatic, even chaotic, differences over time. Tellingly, in Lorenz‚ equations, chaos doesn‚t grow infinitely; the results stay within a finite space, forming the circular, bounded shapes, just as Ritchie‚s swirling masses stay within the boundaries of the canvas rather than bleeding over the edges. Significantly, the scientists who built on Lorenz‚ work include the mathematical genius John Von Neumann, who shared Ritchie‚s strong interest in poker. Approaching numerical theory through this card game, Von Neumann also used games to explore the philosophical interpretations of mathematical formulae, attempting to codify the principles behind behaviors like bluffing and lying, and, later, using them to form strategies for war.

Ritchie shows his interest in poker by scattering gambling phrases and cards throughout „Proposition Playerš and, as part of the extended source material, by tying a poker hand from his deck of cards to each painting. For example, linked to Self-Portrait in 2064 is Dead Man‚s Hand, which consists of two aces, two eights and a jack. Interestingly, Dead Man‚s Hand refers to the poker game during which the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, who held the hand, was shot to death in Deadwood, South Dakota.

That connections between a dissolving body, early chaos theory and a legendary poker game arise from a single Ritchie painting typifies the level and sort of associations that can be found in his work. What these connections mean is not entirely clear, but certainly for Ritchie, as for Von Neumann, figuring out the rules of a game like poker is akin to grasping the rules of the universeųperhaps even the rules that govern life and deathųand therefore no easy task. At times „Proposition Playerš suggests that searching for these rules could drive a person crazy. In some ways, the level of design in the exhibit resembles the intricate belief systems of an unbalanced mind. Courting this resemblance, much of the exhibit is overlaid with cursive phrases („you can‚t beat the deck,š for example, or random mathematical notations) that look like the scribblings of some mad scientist intent on formulating a theory of everything.

If the scientist is insane, however, too much information may have made him that way. One interpretation of Self-Portrait in 2064 is as a modern-day Vitruvian Man, Da Vinci‚s famous drawing of a male whose perfect proportions enabled him to touch the outlines of both a circle and a square. Done to illustrate a set of geometric propositions, Da Vinci‚s drawing shows man at the center of a universe with fixed, clear and mathematically soluble laws. The skeletal figure at the center of Ritchie‚s painting is, on the other hand, half-buried in an explosive quantity of data. The contrast between the two illustrates the difference between life then and now: the Vitruvian Man has become the Information Man.

Installation view of
MASS MoCA's Tall Gallery showing
The Hierarchy Problem, 2004,
acrylic wall drawing, 202 feet long;
Self-Portrait in 2064,
oil and marker on canvas;
and The Fine Constant, 2003,
powder-coated aluminum, stainless steel, gypsum, wax, enamel,
95 by 1,152 by 192 inches
(photo by Arjen Noordeman
courtesy MASS MoCA).

In fact, walking through „Proposition Player,š the viewer is likely to take on the status of this Information Man. Ritchie‚s sculpture The Fine Constant (2003) includes writing on the wall that leaps into the air in the form of steel sculpture; The God Impersonator (2003) consists of rubber shapes laid on the ground to force the viewer to walk over them. The sense of walking over and around these shapes is not exactly one of impersonating God, though; rather, it immerses us in the paintings, in the middle of all that confusing visual information. In this way, the sculptures bring information into space, just as paintings like After Lives (2002) show tiny human figures walking naked through a murky landscape.

Matthew Ritchie,
After Lives, 2002, oil and marker on canvas, 88 by 154 inches
(photo by Arjen Noordeman courtesy MASS MoCA).


If Einstein thought that God does not play dice with the universe and chaos theorists thought that he does, then Ritchie is perhaps saying that this disagreement misses the point. It‚s humans who have invented these theoriesųincluding the theory of Godųto explain the world and our presence in it. For all the ferocious intelligence and energy on display in his work, Ritchie is not a scientist, and his paintings are not textbooks or őNova‚ specials designed to make the universe more comprehensible. A person attempting to learn about the Big Bang, DNA or any other scientific concept from „Proposition Playerš would come away mightily perplexed. Rather, these paintings mirror our confused unconscious, which teems with information, experiences and chaotic beliefs. Though his work ponders the whole universe, it is bounded entirely by the mind.

Ritchie has stated that he wanted to introduce various fixed elements into a system of art to see if painting could become its own language. However, in their masses of symbols and chaotic yet coherent images, their rules and characters tied to exterior story lines, his paintings most closely resemble the language of dreams. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud points out that dreams consist of images rather than thoughts, and that their purpose is experience rather than thought. Sleep, according to Freud, represents an end to the authority of the self, in that it causes detachment from the external world. In sleep the mind isolates itself from the external world and withdraws from its own periphery; we give up, in Freud‚s words, „the power of giving intentional guidance to the sequence of our ideas.š This notion recalls how multiple theories of the worldųscientific, gaming, religiousųinteract on Ritchie‚s canvases, as if without a rational consciousness to pin them down or give them coherence. Like dreams, Ritchie‚s paintings map the world with symbols and associations, finding connections that may elude us in waking life. And like dreams, they picture a place that has its own byzantine rules, perhaps only fully understandable to the dreamer.

Matthew Ritchie, Coffin Weather, 2003, vinyl detail on window installed in MASS MoCA‚s Susan and Duncan Brown Family Gallery (photo by Arjen Noordeman courtesy MASS MoCA).

To say that Ritchie‚s paintings are dream-like is not to dismiss their power. For Freud also wrote that „the most complicated achievements of thought are possible without the assistance of consciousness.š In the world of dreams, the mind lets loose, follows its ideas freely and without constraint; it is fertile and enriching territory. Ritchie‚s work can perhaps best be seen as willed dreaming: a journey through the gorgeous interiority of the mind, in all its confusion and passion. Though our minds produce dreams, they often seem alien to us, and when we wake we wonder at the images our unconscious has constructed. Ritchie‚s work elicits something of the same wonder: a sense of giving our thoughts back to us in a new and recapitulated form.

This reconfiguring might be what Ritchie means when he refers to his work as a metaphor for the construction of art. „Proposition Playerš shows us art as a waking dream, with Ritchie as the willing dreamer, laying it out on the canvas for us to see. If, as Freud says, dreams are less about thoughts than experiences, then the point of playing with Ritchie‚s propositions is not to beat the deckųor even, perhaps, to figure out the rules. You don‚t need to worry about winning or losing; you only have to live through the game‚s bewildering beauty.

Matthew Ritchie‚s „Proposition Playerš originated at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and is at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts until February 2005.

ALIX OHLIN is a freelance art writer and the Writer-in-Residence at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island. Her feature on Janet Cardiff‚s video installations appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of ART PAPERS.


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