The Mythology of Matthew Ritchie: An Attempt to Rewrite the Beginning of the Universe…Sort of…

By Audra Esker 

 

Myth is everything and nothing at the same time.  It is the true story or a false one, revelation or deception, sacred or vulgar, real or fictional, symbol or tool, archetype or stereotype.  It is either strongly structured and logical or emotional and pre-logical, traditional and primitive or part of contemporary ideology.  Myth is about the gods, but often also the ancestors and sometimes certain men…‘Myth’ translates muthos, but also die Sage, die Mythe, or lili’u.  It is both ‘la geste d’Asdiwal’ and ‘le mythe de Sisyphe.’  It is character, recurring theme, character type, received idea, half-truth, tale or just a plain lie.    Ivan Strenski, Four Theories of Myth in Twentieth Century History

What do you get when you cross a group of drug-addicted thugs with some musically inclined angels, a gang of corrupt cops, a soon-to-be pregnant actress, an astronaut, and a Golem?  According to Matthew Ritchie, you get the Big Bang, or the beginning of the universe as we know it.  Or not.  It could also bring Armageddon or the Apocalypse.  It is a fall from the heavens (one might choose to say ‘grace’); it is a simple event that gets the universal ball rolling.  It all depends on the button pushed- the character chosen (who chooses is still a question up for debate).  Ritchie’s mythological narrative is not static, nor does it exist as the single one.  There are multiple parallel mythologies, cosmogonies and moments of ‘genesis’ Ritchie wants us to consider, and he creates a visual world through which we can follow these stories.  As he writes about his seemingly odd cast of original characters: 

Since it is almost impossible to understand them as they were then; as infinite points, bound in an indecomposable continuum, let’s look at them as they would become. There were so many and they had waited so long. Their bodies interleaved as closely as pages in a book, they slipped and slid in and out of each other, all through the endless day of the beginning, inside the heart of the naked singularity. It was before years, before history, before time: it was the whole universe; the birth, the hope, the blame; the dream, the betrayal, the revenge: waiting inside one tiny, hot, little dot. If you believe that, you’ll believe anything. But that’s how it always gets started. Somebody tells us a story we’d like to believe, that we’d like just as much to hear is only a story, and we’re hooked, breathless for more, the next version.  (matthewritchie.com) 

Ritchie’s work consists of an attempt to create that next version:  a mind-bending array of painting, sculpture, creative writing, digital matrices, light boxes, musical composition and various other forms of media that have been crafted by Ritchie to involve the viewer in the new cosmic mythology he has set out to establish.  But do not be confused; there are rules, and the rules are to be followed both by Ritchie and those who participate in his work (e.g., the viewers).  By merging physics, art, mythology, philosophy, religion and history, Ritchie’s work ultimately asks the participant/viewer to think hard, but sit back, relax and enjoy the ride that is our universe.  As he stated in an interview for Art:21, an ongoing PBS documentary:

To classify visual art as the one medium that shouldn’t require effort to understand—to just be able to look at it as pure sensation and walk away—relegates it to the level of a rollercoaster ride. I’m saying, “Open your eyes and enjoy the ride!” Because it’s much more exciting if you are thinking and questioning and you don’t know what it is—and it’s full of questions and statements that you can’t possibly grasp.   

This concept of forcing the viewer to actually think is part of what makes Ritchie’s work so enticing.  Part of Ritchie’s appeal is for the viewer to walk away from a beautifully complex piece of art with questions about humankind, the universe and how all were created- or the possibility that there are even more complex universes and life forms in existence.

In what follows, I hope to outline how Ritchie’s complex mythological construct is a radical departure from abstract painting as we know it today.  Some have argued that science is the new art, that art is the new science, or that either art or science is the new religion (mythology?).  I would like to explore how Ritchie has taken it one step further and successfully merged all three, as his visual creations illuminate how art, religion and science are seemingly inseparable.  As Siân Ede writes in his book Art and Science, “Visualizing, abstracting, imagining, inventing, pretending, storytelling, re-presenting and ceaselessly reinterpreting things are as important as indications of human achievement and communication as rational discourse and the presentation of empirical evidence.”  I think Matthew Ritchie would agree.

“Working Model”

After moving to New York City in the early 1990s, Matthew Ritchie spent far less time creating art than he did educating himself in physics.  Having discarded any previous artwork from England (and perhaps his previous conceptions of art), Ritchie’s first project in the United States was the development of a chart that ultimately set the boundaries for any work the artist creates to date.  The chart is loosely referred to as “Working Model,” and while this chart (created in 1995) may appear simple at first glance, those familiar with Ritchie’s work know that a closer look must be taken in order to fully grasp the situation.

“Working Model” consists of seven vertical and horizontal rows that list various shapes (representing seven types of activity in physics equations), colors, characters (the names are mostly pulled from ancient mythology), emotions and/or typically human characteristics and physical properties of the universe.  The shaped equations line the top, and the colors are listed vertically.  Each shape can correspond to each color, which in turn can represent seven different groupings of three: character, emotions/human characteristics, and physical property.  This matrix gives the artist the possibility of using 49 different combinations.  For example, the color red (pregnant with its own mythological meaning) can correspond to the oblong shape representing vector in conjunction with the character Azazel, the emotion/characteristic of Error, and the physical property Medulla.  But the color red can also correspond to the circular shape representing uptake in conjunction with the character Nergal, the emotion/characteristic of Fever, and the physical property of substitution.  Or, perhaps red represents the phallic shape for development in conjunction with the character Leviathan, the emotion/characteristic of Chaos, and the physical property ∆S (the symmetric difference or change in sum).  As stated by Ritchie in Lynn Gamwell’s Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual, “The forty-nine elements are characters, with precisely defined functions in the story that is told by their interaction.  This is the story of origins, of genesis and fall, as a metaphor for the construction of art.”

The various combinations may seem unintelligible to some, but the complexity of “Working Model” is an effort by Ritchie to impose a set of rules by which he can create his narrative mythology.  When asked by Bomb Magazine contributor Jenifer Berman how necessary it was for the viewer to understand the symbology of Ritchie’s narrative, he replied, “You have to be able to trust the maker…It’s not like you need to be culturally specific, but you have to be very rigorous about your own internal mythology or it collapses and people lose faith in it.  So this was an attempt to be very explicit, probably as much for me as for any audience, to go, here are the rules up front, there are no secrets, so if I make a mistake or backtrack or start to manipulate this, you’ll be able to call me on it.”  Ritchie claims that he wanted to break away from what he calls the arbitrary “pseudo-narratives” that were prominent in the 1980s and instead create a more structured and formulaic narrative mythology for himself and the viewer.  He wanted to bring painting to another level.  Ritchie considers himself to be a painter first and foremost, although many would classify his work as site-specific or more related to installation.  For Ritchie, painting is a complex technology that demands the social responsibility of the artist, the art critic and the observer.  While many artists dapple in various mediums, Ritchie’s stated intent is to use painting as a foundation and create a scaffolding of sorts out of every discipline he can manage to squeeze into his complex visual narratives. 

Order out of Chaos?                 

chaos  1.  Historically, the contrast is between chaos, or the unordered, unformed, undifferentiated beginnings of things, and the cosmos, which is the ordered universe.  The concept is thus implicit in early Greek cosmogony.  2.  In modern science, chaotic systems are ones in which an arbitrarily small difference in the initial conditions can produce arbitrarily large differences in later states…Chaotic systems can be deterministic, but are not predictable, for however accurate a measurement of the state at that time, a variation smaller than any it can detect may be responsible for a difference in the actual outcome.   Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

In order to grasp Ritchie’s complex symbology, one must foray momentarily into the world of chaos theory.  As a non-physicist, I have no intention of belaboring this discussion, but understanding some of the basic tenets of chaos theory can be particularly helpful in deciphering Ritchie’s work.  (Ritchie, however, really knows physics- in 2009 he was the only artist invited to speak to a gathering of Nobel laureates discussing Einstein’s theories in the 21st century).  From the definition noted above, one can see that there are two popular ways in which chaos is understood: the philosophic and the scientific.  For the purposes of Ritchie’s work, we must focus on both definitions in order to grasp his intent.  Within chaos theory, we find organization.  One could say that chaos is simply a “what if” situation.  In Matthew Ritchie’s case, this is not too far off the mark.  “What if” Ritchie chooses a specific character during the creation of a specific piece?  In Ritchie’s interview with Berman he stated that small choice can alter the entire structure of the piece: “The paintings write the myth.  So if I want to put some blue in, and blue is a character, you can’t just put blue next to red.  If you could do that you’ve added another chapter.”  According to the laws of physics we generally only recognize one reality.  By this is meant that what has occurred in our lifetime often differs wildly from what we thought was possible, and what happens in the future can only be forecast- it cannot be predicted with absolute certainty.  Forecasting is a common occurrence in meteorology, and meteorologist Edward Lorenz is most famous for popularizing chaos theory, commonly referred to as the “butterfly effect.” 

The butterfly effect is thought to be derived from a talk given by Lorenz entitled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”  Admittedly not a title he created himself, Lorenz’s work nonetheless exemplified the natural organization of chaos and the ability for arbitrarily small occurrences to greatly affect the outcome of previously forecasted (or predicted) events.  The butterfly effect is not only a scientific term, but one now used within pop culture to signify a movie or work of literature that bases its premises on “what if” scenarios.  Ritchie’s work could be viewed as incorporating both the pop culture element of the butterfly effect as well as the scientific theory.  He has given much thought to Lorenz’s contribution to chaos theory- so much so that an abstracted image of the Lorenz attractor (a hypothesized structure indicating the trajectory of chaotic flow) finds itself woven into many of Ritchie’s works. 

Lorenz Attractor

Not only does Ritchie incorporate actual physical equations into his work, he pays homage to the founders of chaos theory in a visually artistic manner. 

Ritchie's Self Portrait 2064

The differences between physics and art seem great at first, but many have argued that they share a common bond.   Leonard Shlain, a surgeon who claims to have a beginner’s unbiased eye for both art criticism and physics wrote in his 1991 book Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light, “[D]espite what appear to be irreconcilable differences [between art and physics], there is one fundamental feature that solidly connects these disciplines.  Revolutionary art and visionary physics are both investigations into the nature of reality.” 

Chaos, as used by Ritchie in his work, is organized and systematic.  But it also breeds uncertainty, and becoming comfortable with that uncertainty is one of Ritchie’s long-term goals.  When asked by Berman whether or not he found himself to be pedantic in requiring so much of his viewers, Ritchie responded in a way that only further conveys his attachment to both art and physics without the pretentiousness that can saddle them both: “With the first show, everyone was like, God, I can’t believe you’re making me learn all of this crap.  And with the second show it became obvious that what I was intending to do was give you enough information so that you could let go.  This is supposed to be fun.  This is not designed as a test.  There are no questions later, this is art.”   

Mythology as Art and the Theory of Everything  

“Myths tell the story of the mind’s division of space and time, and the subsequent separation of art and physics, by allegorically illuminating the incremental steps on the road to the self-reflective mind.”      Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics

Not only does Matthew Ritchie include multiple world mythologies and chaos theory in his artwork, he also includes…well, everything else.  Human beings are rife with ambition to answer all questions we think to pose about every aspect of our lives (biological, local and cosmic).  Attempting to draw attention to this tragedy of the human condition (it is tragedy, for how are we ever going to answer it all?), Ritchie’s work symbolizes an effort to incorporate the origins of the universe into every single piece of work he creates.  This is, however, not without humility.  As curator Laura Stuart Heon remarked, “Ritchie’s continuing project represents a tireless effort to unravel all of the governing theories behind the existence of our universe, all the while in full cognizance of the absurdity of such a pursuit.”  Thus stated, Ritchie has mastered the ability to fuse the ‘hard’ sciences with an artistic vision that is unlike other abstract artists.  The rapidity with which his compositions may change based on the simple choice to use one ‘mythological’ character versus another is a testament to Ritchie’s ability to utilize the scientific theories and methods of the universe to create something visually stunning.

As incomprehensible as Matthew Ritchie’s art may seem, the viewers do not have to memorize Ritchie’s cast of characters or fully grasp chaos theory in order to find themselves visually stimulated by Ritchie’s work.  His mythological reconstructions allow the viewer to play with the laws of the universe as well as our traditional conceptions of art and religion, regardless of whether or not we have PhDs in physics, the humanities or other social sciences; but the visual acuity of his work remains.  For one of Ritchie’s latest exhibitions, Universal Adversary, Klauss Kertess writes:

In all of these projects, and indeed his entire body of work, Ritchie has created a visual vocabulary that binds a variety of subjects with visual tropes that have proven to be remarkably versatile in his quest for the universal, semasiographic, painting system he has been developing for the past decade, where the parts cannot only be intertranslated between works but also adapted to absorb any form of content.  He has achieved this without sacrificing visual pleasure or visual variety.  And his vaulting ambition is tempered by his deep intelligence, his humor, and his willingness to play.  And it’s just the beginning.

I could not agree more.  If Ritchie continues to follow the rules (however loose they may seem at present), the art world can expect a continuation of these parallel mythologies in Ritchie’s painting as well as any other medium he may decide to adopt. 

Sources:

  • “Art:21- Art in the Twenty-first Century”:  http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/ritchie/index.html
  • Matthew Ritchie. More Than the Eye. New York: Rizzoli, 2008 (this is essentially an edited volume of all of Ritchie’s work- a great resource for anyone interested in finding out more about his philosophy)…
  • Lilly Wei. “The Cosmos According to Matthew Ritchie.” ARTnews. Vol. 103 No. 7, 148-151. 2004.

Works in order of appearance:  Day One, The Fast Set, Working Model, No Sign of the World, Lorenz Attractor, Ritchie’s Self Portrait 2064, Proposition Player, and Universal Adversary.

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