Universal Pictures

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

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."

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'svisually 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.

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.

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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