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An ambitious exhibition at the CAM takes on too much

Atop the table sculpture are tiny gray plaster sculptures on metal rods that pierce and suspend the piece. These works are from an after-school project Ritchie did with Wharton Elementary in which the children made Ritchie-inspired sculptures. Ritchie then digitally removed 95 percent of their information and cast the results. Like all of Ritchie's work, this is an interesting idea. But the sculptures look stupid stuck on metal spikes. Formally, they don't work with the piece; they feel dinky and extraneous. There may be a conceptual reason for presenting them this way, but making them on a larger scale and maybe suspending them would work better.

Ritchie's series of paintings is the odd man out in the installation. The salable, time-honored convention of rectilinear surfaces covered with canvas seems like a retrograde holdover in the context of the entire installation. Or, conversely, the installation seems like an unnecessary backdrop to a solid series of paintings. These are well-constructed and intriguing works with organic tangles of swirling, tentaclelike forms, sprouting eyes, Magic Marker notations, cloudlike shapes and the rare figure. The series of organically abstract works has "big bang" allusions, and each conveys a sense of something evolving or breaking down, depending on the direction you take through the gallery.

An essay from the exhibition catalog states, "Ritchie has often discussed his desire to make painting a complete working system that others could clearly understand, that is, to bring it into the realm of language." I think his system is way too freakin' hermetic for that to happen anytime soon, but D&D enthusiasts will like this one: A poker hand is inscribed next to each painting's title, and the map of Ritchie's card deck helps decode which characters and ideas inform the paintings. But you have to wonder what the payoff is; it obviously works well as a strategy for Ritchie to create the paintings, but is this something important for the viewer? And the paintings themselves, with their dense, organically abstract forms, don't really lend themselves to symbolic communication.

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 "proposition player" in the installation's title is defined as "a person brought in by a casino to encourage play." Ritchie wants others to join his game of intellectual and visual exploration -- and they literally can with his high-tech craps table. Rolling four-sided, computer chip-embedded dice cast from prehistoric antelope bones (animal bones being the first form of dice), the viewer moves through various levels of play and ideas (everything from thermodynamics to nucleic acids), constructing a universe symbolically and visually through Ritchie's projected digital animations. The dice broke a couple days after the opening, but a new set has arrived and play has resumed.

The game feels closest to achieving Ritchie's broad and eclectic objectives. If you keep rolling those antelope bones long enough to reach the fifth DNA level, a skeleton begins to assemble itself and blood begins to flow according to your dice rolls. The game room is lit by the projections on the back wall and the game table. An alternately humming, thundering and beeping audio accompanies play. Here Ritchie envelops the viewer in a more dynamic atmosphere, using audio, animation and technology.

Try going from that to the lovely, sensitive drawings on vellum, neatly framed, in another room. And then head over to the illuminated map of Ritchie's characters card deck. There's a disconnect between the high-tech game room, the subtle, handmade quality of the drawings and the stylized, graphic comic book nature of the playing cards. They're all valid, but they aren't helping each other.

The paintings and drawings are satisfying in and of themselves. But if Ritchie really wants to make art about "everything," he needs a container that can hold it. It seems like using new technology and digital media is one of the best ways to achieve that goal. There are several Web projects by Ritchie that allow viewers to explore images in digital layers, clicking through series of images and text. They jibe much better with the things Ritchie says are most important to him. One was done for the Walker Art Center and the other for MIT.

Ritchie doesn't just want to make art about everything; he also wants to make everything -- paintings, drawings, digital animation, sculptures… As an artist you can certainly do that, but that doesn't mean you should show it all together. In "Proposition Player," things still need sorting out, but the show is nevertheless visually and intellectually provocative -- and, headache or no headache, that's a good thing.

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