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An ambitious exhibition at the CAM takes on too much

When I was a kid, my little brother and his friends all played Dungeons & Dragons. It seemed like it might be an interesting game -- if you could stand to read through all the rules and crap to figure out how the hell it was played. But it always gave me headache trying to figure it out. Anyway, they all went on to become doctors and scientists and computer geeks and are exponentially smarter than I am. There are people who enjoy things like reading rules and constructing mythologies and cosmologies, but I just never could. Maybe it's a matter of taste; perhaps it's a matter of different brains working differently or -- wince -- at different levels.

Artist Matthew Ritchie would be a great D&D player. He's built his body of work around his own constructed cosmology. The obligatory background in every review of his art goes something like this: In 1995, Ritchie, a British art school graduate, was working as a building superintendent in New York. A lot of students lived in the building, and they would throw out their old textbooks. Ritchie, a classic autodidact, albeit with a formal education, collected and read them, gaining an increasingly eclectic body of knowledge.

He then made a list of everything he was interested in. "It was grouped as 49 categories arranged in a grid of seven by seven, things like solitude, color, DNA, sex, everything I could think of," he said in an interview for the catalog accompanying the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's installation "Matthew Ritchie: Proposition Player." "Each element on the list was represented in seven ways: as a scientific function, a theological function, a narrative function, a color, a form, a dynamic function and, finally, through a personal, hidden meaning. But once they started crossing over from their little boxes, which happened immediately, that's when it turned into a map, like a place, as if all the elements had become little cities one would like to visit. And then it became a story, almost automatically."

Matthew Ritchie's paintings are at odds with the rest of his show.
Courtesy of CAM
Matthew Ritchie's paintings are at odds with the rest of his show.

The list resulted in 49 allegorical characters, and the project became a strategy and a system for making art about "everything." In 2004, the list is almost ten years old, and it's still referred to by Ritchie. But while the characters and the stories Ritchie constructs for them may inspire the artist, their presence and function has become increasingly obscure for the viewer. Originally, the characters of Ritchie's system were identifiable in the paintings. Now they feel like vestigial organs that may at one time have been vital but are now largely subsumed by the current body of work.

The CAM's visually dynamic installation has lots of stuff going on: drawings on the floor and gallery walls, paintings, a tablelike sculpture, an interactive gaming table, projections and 3-D transparencies, a room of delicate drawings and a diagram of Ritchie's map of characters transformed into a card deck. Whew.

The show feels a little too controlled to comfortably contain all of these things. Many of the elements seem to be unintentionally at odds with each other. It needs to be either pared down or made more free-flowing, raucous and over-the-top. The exhibition seems torn between conventionally presenting paintings and drawings and fully embracing the potential of installation.

Three of the elements from the main installation do work fairly well together. The black lines of the The Hierarchy Problem (2003) spill over the museum's pale yellow walls. We catch the occasional recognizable snippet: a scientific formula in reverse, a diagram, a scrap of text. It's as if Ritchie put some college notebooks in a visual blender. The God Impersonator #1 (2003) crawls over the wooden floorboards like a colony of multicolored amoebas. Its placement underfoot is significant, intended to convey Ritchie's disdain for religious dogma and those who claim ultimate concrete knowledge of the universe. Ritchie is fascinated by information theory and sees The Fine Constant (2003), the sculpture running through the center of the room, as a kind of chaotic river of information. (But you have to ask yourself, If we already live surrounded by a glut of information and images, what does trying to depict that accomplish?)

Ritchie, who has incorporated 3-D elements into his work before, considers this last piece to be his first "real" sculpture. It was cut from sheets of aluminum and is held up by metal rods. The work's linearity is similar to the wall drawing, and it casts a great shadow on the floor, but the problem is that its height makes it counterlike. And unless you have a ladder or the ability to levitate, you can't view it very well. It's a primarily two-dimensional work, a sculpture by a painter that fails to really take advantage of that third dimension afforded by sculpture. The lines may be dynamic, but the placid horizontality of the work makes it feel incredibly static.

Ritchie's wall drawing and sculpture are the visual results of an elaborate strategy. Ready for this? They were derived from percentages of the combined totality of various previous works by Ritchie. (I'm simplifying -- it's actually even more involved than this, but my head's already hurting.) One local artist likened the process to using "starter dough" for bread; it's a way for Ritchie to generate new works from fragments of the old, creating a visual continuum. The idea informing the percentage concept is that scientists believe that we're capable of observing only 5 percent of the known universe.

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