MATTHEW RITCHIE: THE UNIVERSAL ADVERSARY
installation shot, courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery
If the international situation has you fretting about Armaggedon, cheer up: It turns out the apocalypse is going to be great fun, after all. At least that’s the vision according to art installations current in Chelsea. With shows that inaugurate their respective dealers’ new or expanded galleries, Matthew Ritchie’s takes its title, “The Universal Adversary,” from our government’s collective term for worst case scenario crisis prediction, while Barnaby Furnas explodes his trademark motif of shed blood to biblically epic proportions.
Their art is as photogenic as the glossies frequently prove the young art stars themselves to be—for all the portentuousness of their subject matter, neither prophet is a grizzly old man with a beard. Cheerful palette, spritely markmaking, sumptuous overload and dexterous skill are the pervasive qualities of both exhibitions. These are the masters of doomsday décor.
Mr. Ritchie, by his own confession, is a data junkie. His art digests (or doesn’t) sources as disparate as physics, alchemy, social theory, theology, and neo-noir fiction. It, in turn, overloads the viewer with a correspondingly dense accumulation of visual incidence. The current installation incorporates framed paintings in oil and marker on linen; an animated projection; a bank of lightbox lenticular panels with backlit photographic prints; and a vast overhanging sculpture in powdercoated aluminum and stainless steel, which in turn incorporates audio-visual display to be experience high in the gallery’s rafters after ascending a spiral staircase. A resonant male voice reads a medley from the artist’s notebooks and from government speeches on military preparedness.
He is a lover of layers, both literal and conceptual. His art goes back and forth between computer generation and hand execution: Imagery is drawn, scanned, projected, traced, scanned again, and printed and animated in myriad ways. His cool, impersonal hand is essentially cartographic: outline drawing is the principal means of expression across mediums, including the cutout metal sculpture which is a drawing sent to the mill to be burnt into metal, retaining its flatness and linearity. The large framed canvases build up layers of different markmaking: Stains, drips, loops, and squiggles that constantly play off the macro and microcosmic. “Mad professor” strings of equation accent various surfaces.
In this show he has shed his trademark cutout vinyl with which he habitually covers walls and floors, but there is plenty to keep the eye busy. The lightbox dislay, “Something Like Day” (2004) – behind which you mount the spiral stair – uses a fancy technology to holograph-like effect; tip your head side to side and naked figures metamorphize into skeletons. The figuration in this show is more overt than usual; it has a dashed-off bravura familiar to a kind of illustration that in turn looks to old master drawing: it directly recalls the popular mid-century Polish-born muralist Feliks Topolski who was active in Mr. Ritchie’s native Britain.
In detail and totality alike, there is no quest that Mr. Ritchie is blessed with a deft touch. He creates fun, lively envirnonments, and with his fuss and fiddle, an impressive sense of texture. But once you get used to the optical overload, and the impressive range of mediums and formats, it becomes clear that his technology is ahead of his technique. The layering and cleverness, the array of references and arts and crafts wizardry, seem like distractions from an underlying artistic inadequacy: there is nothing, really, for all these marks and gestures to do except mark and gesture. His art really demonstrates the distinction between complication and complexity. He has lots of the former, and not much of the latter. But then, if you with the notion that the medium is the message, that might be his profound insight.
Mr. Furnas’s new work has found religion, and whether he depicts Christ before the cross or the parting of the Red Sea there is more tomato ketchup in evidence than in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ.”
War has long been Mr. Furnas’s theme, and there are still some overtly political images that recall the magic of his early style. “John Brown” (2005) for instance, places the anti-slavery crusader amidst a throng of revolvers firing into the air—each meticulously rendered bullet punctuating the sky above his head. “Execution of John Brown” (2005) has the tight, nervous awkwardness mixed with weirdly joyous stain and splatter that marks Mr. Furnas as an exceptional illustrator. His penchant for sanguinary spray and splay recalls the caricatures of Gerald Scarfe, for instance his legendary album cover for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” A series of portraits of generic politicos (bearing slight resemblances to Bill Clinton and Tzipi Livni) bear titles like “Greedy Piggy” and “Heart F- - ker" and are painted in urethane and spirits on burnt calf skin vellum, replete with graffiti-like splatters of blood and obscene writing.
The religious themes maintain Mr. Furnas’s strange balance of dark subject and brilliant color. “Christ” (2006) criss-crosses the Savior with scorching bright streaks of yellow. A pair of canvases, “Before the Cross 1 and 2” (2006) lacerate the image of Christ with sprays of equisite pinkness that exceed anatomical credibility: in #1 his torso is made up of beads of blood, while his head sends shoots of it in all directions.
The main event at Boesky, however, takes Mr. Furnas in a new scale direction, although the main theme – blood – is all too consistent. A large rear gallery presents the first, second and fourth from a series titled, “Red Sea (Parting)” (2006), paintings that are twenty and thirty foot wide. The scene is as the title describes: mammoth red waves are wrested apart, sending sprays into the blue sky above. As usual, the reds sparkle and glisten—if this is Homer’s wine dark sea then Rosé and Pinot Noir are being served. There is a sense that each hue, with a rich array of tones, represents a different current.
If the scale and theme recall the Victorian eschatological canvases of John Martin, the bloodiness is more up the street of Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch. Whether poured, stroked or sprayed, these rivers of blood flow lovingly, conveying adolescent affection over apocalyptic indignation -- a moral ambiguity at the heart of this artist’s aesthetic.
Ritchie through October 28 (525 W 24 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 607 6000)
Furnas through October 21 (509 W 24 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 680 5889)