Standing amid the forest of sculptural elements in Matthew Ronay’s installation Between the Worlds (2010), one is enveloped in total silence. The walls and ceiling are completely covered with a soft black fabric that absorbs light and noise. Painted white dash marks float against the dark background like countless leaves suspended in midair. Despite the quiet, the space seems to teem with life. Crowding the dimly lit interior are trees made of painted fabric and papier-mâché, some with trunks as thick as human torsos, which tower to the ceiling. Their branches are occupied by papier-mâché birds and hung with strands of wooden beads that dangle like knotted cobwebs, usually motionless but capable of swinging if touched by a breeze or finger. Primordial-looking creatures are everywhere, some resembling jellyfish, others squatting on the ground like small hooded goblins. Two totemlike figures, imposing in their size and humanoid presence, bring to mind costumed shamen. One feels watched by thousands of eyes.
This massive installation, currently occupying a 2,000-square-foot exhibition space at artpace, home to a highly regarded artists’ residency program in San Antonio, is unlike anything ronay has created before. Vaster in size and scope, it is also more dreamlike than the wry sculptural tableaux that garnered the artist significant notoriety over the past decade, with their mordant references to sex, food and pop culture.
Born in 1976 and raised in Louisville, Ky., Ronay earned an MFA from Yale in 2000 and moved to Brooklyn just as New York City was plunging into the troubled post-9/11 era. His early work was informed by the conviction that Americans, disenchanted with their country’s new domestic politics and altered international standing, had entered a phase of no-holds-barred consumerism—hence his focus on society’s obsession with pornography, obesity and physical disintegration. Ronay’s installations were often populated with displaced sexual organs, together with everyday items like spaghetti or tampons. These components were made predominantly of medium density fiberboard (mdf), which he would glue in stacks and then grind into three-dimensional shapes, polishing the surfaces to a high shine before lacquering them with lurid hues. The cartoonish, toylike quality of these sculptures added to their shock value, a function of ronay’s self-described “talent” for imagining revolting scenarios. “I have this ability,” he says, “to envision really, really disgusting things.”1
Ronay was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where he showed selections from 70s Funk Concert Model (2003), a project designed to celebrate the bond between funk music and Vietnam-era social consciousness (in contrast to what the artist sees—bafflingly, given the wild popularity of hip-hop—as the total disconnect between contemporary pop music and today’s cultural and political issues). The mdf components include three low black platforms, moderate in size, representing musical acts from the 1970s. Soul singer Curtis Mayfield is evoked by a black warrior’s helmet and two fried eggs, symbolizing his advocacy of black culture and his admiration for women and domesticity. The other platforms allude, by means of equally oblique object combinations, to the bands Mandrill and Earth, Wind & Fire. Elsewhere in the installation, Ronay riffs on food engineering, Through a set of four upright cow legs traversed by a spear that points toward a plateful of french fries, and foreign policy, satirized via an amputated leg with a scrolled copy of the Constitution balanced on the tip of one toe.
As his career gained momentum, ronay seemed to revel in obscenity. The 2005 Obese Eclipsed Cock, which debuted that year in his solo exhibition “Shine the Light” at Marc Foxx in Los angeles, is a sculptural grouping that features five normal-size hamburgers on a long support bowed between wall and floor, lined up with two enormous penises, each with a bloody bite wound, arched one atop the other. inverted testicles complete the neat row. Ronay gleefully told a writer for the magazine Modern Painters that the work is a comment on the terrifying and mutually destructive interplay between the over-consumption of food and pornography: “[It’s] like you ate too many burgers and you can’t see your dick anymore.”2in 2005-06, as reports of abuses at Abu Ghraib spread around the world, Ronay was included in a number of exhibitions that examined America’s accelerating moral tailspin. The traveling group show “Uncertain States of America—American Art in the 3rd Millennium,” organized by European curators Daniel Birnbaum, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Gunnar Kvaran and first mounted in 2005 at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, featured apocalyptic visions of American culture by some 40 young U.S. artists, including Sean Dack and Matthew Day Jackson. Among Ronay’s several contributions was Cat’s Butt Hole in Role of Heaven in Reverse Rapture (2004), consisting of a bright green pool raft, a brick wall, a flaming torch and a long, pink, tubular butt hole, all made from mdf, wood and metal. Ronay envisioned the cat’s butt hole as having the power to lure and then swallow all of society’s evil inhabitants, transporting them to hell.
By his 30th birthday, the artist had to his credit solo exhibitions at Marc Foxx, New York’s Andrea Rosen, London’s Parasol Unit, Madrid’s Vacio 9 and Copenhagen’s Nils Staerk. Several of his workshad been purchased by major art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. it was therefore mystifying to observers when, at the end of 2006, ronay became profoundly dissatisfied with his sculpture and halted all projects. He didn’t show anything for nearly a year. When he began to produce work in earnest again in late 2007, the results were a complete formal departure: he used papier-mâché, wood, fabric and other natural materials to create almost primitive-looking, talismanic artifacts with mottled surfaces and irregular angles. He also left most materials unpainted. Since the artist is color-blind, he has always found mixing colors a difficult and convoluted process; eliminating that step allowed him to work more intuitively.
Ronay says that his disillusionment with his previous work had to do with the limitations of its glib provocations. The grouping of familiar pop imagery with bodily fluids, sexual organs and other fraught items led to associative mind games: “Even if it was a naked homeless person and a hamburger and a tampon, you could triangulate from those three and add a missing object in your head to come up with a social statement about whatever— homeless people, health care, politics.” In the end, these interpretations struck him as contrived and superficial. He wanted to dig deeper, beyond the narratives he and viewers spun to explain his sculptures. Hitting that wall of meaning, he says, “Was kind of an endgame for me as an artist.” He became intrigued by the open-ended nature of art: the power of an object to ignite something unpredictable and deeply personal in its viewer. Eschewing both entertainment and intellectual content, ronay wanted his art to touch its audience on a far more fundamental human level.
Throughout his hiatus, Ronay sought to disconnect himself from his previous work. He read Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and went for several sessions in a sensory-deprivation tank. He also stopped drawing, which had always been an essential part of his process. “Drawing was the birth point of my ideas,” he explains, adding that he realized “If that’s the way it happens, then i need to get rid of that birth point and figure out how to sculpt intuitively.” He found himself drawn to traditional rituals, totems, sacred spaces and ceremonial costumes, all of which seemed to possess enduring and transcendental qualities he felt his work lacked. He became interested in the practice of alchemy and the transformation of objects through the application of energy and faith. his speech grew peppered with terms like “spiritual” and “tribal,” which he worries have become freighted with hokey and dubious connotations. “All of those weird, amorphous, almost new age things have been left to new age people,” he frets. “They’re not left for artists, where i think they would maybe be best served. I’m trying to work on . . . Something more earnest, and embarrassing maybe.”
The first exhibition of Ronay’s new work took place at Andrea Rosen in February 2008. One of the pieces, Rewildlings (2007), features a trio of wooden bowls interspersed among three rocklike papier-mâché forms, which are anthropomorphized with empty eye sockets. The objects are grouped atop a 38-inch-long elliptical tray set on the floor. Observance (2007-08), a large postand-lintel structure, is composed of a horizontal sapling supported on one end by a column of plaster blocks and on the other by a wooden framework that resembles the skeleton of a teepee. Small tree-shaped wooden forms dangle from the sapling on lengths of twine. Like his former work, these new pieces are all impeccably crafted.
After 2007, Ronay also began doing performances in conjunction with his sculpture. He often wears shamanistic costumes, consisting of coarsely woven gowns and papier-mâché masks, to undertake short dadaesque actions with his friend and fellow artist Nathan Carter, with whom he has an on-again, off-again band called the Final Run-Ins. Videos of the art events are posted on Youtube.
Ronay’s’ new direction piqued the interest of Matthew Drutt, the curator of Artpace. In early 2009, Drutt invited him to stage a performance at the Austin home of an Artpace patron. Ronay set up an unlit tentlike enclosure; donned an elaborate one-armed, helmeted costume; and stood within the pitch-black chamber, while drutt sent in one or two viewers at a time. “Some people came out and were like, huh?” says Drutt. Others laughed uncontrollably; a few hugged Ronay; almost everyone touched him; and one person groped him. Drutt views the experiment as a great success: “[Ronay] was looking to provoke a response from people that was totally different from the response they have when they go and look at art. He wanted to manipulate people’s experiences in a certain way that a powerful spiritual object would. And it worked.”3 Shortly thereafter, Drutt asked Ronay to mount an exhibition at artpace’s hudson (Show)room, Ronay’s early and current works, there are significant contiurginghim to fill the space from top to bottom.
Prone to insomnia, Ronay came upon his idea for the Artpace project during one sleepless night in fall 2009. He pictured a forest crowded with trees and strange, otherworldlyflora and fauna; it was a place of retreat and self-reflection. “The history of religions and psychology portrays the forest as a meeting place of self, where an internal battle is fought. Historically, it’s been a rite of passage to go alone into the wilderness and face your demons and the natural elements.” In November, Ronay began working on the forest in his Long island City studio, sewing together trees and hand-painting each dash mark on the fabric backdrop. Feathers, hair, tulle or other materials hang from some elements, presenting the kind of myriad shapes and textures that would be found in a wooded area filled with leaves, insects, hives, nests and any number of unknowns.While most artists launching an ambitious project might hire a studio assistant (or five), ronay is adamant about his work being the direct result of his own efforts. “It’s like i’m banking energy. . . . thematerials change when i touch them, but instead of being justa visual analogy, I’m hoping that it’s an actual energy deposart.” Because he imbues his pieces with his intention and care, Ronay believes that his sculpture holds a kind of force field, a thrum emanating from his labor.
Notwithstanding the Stark differences between Ronay’s early and current works, there are significant continuties. The notion of energy transference has always been important to his process. For his 2005 Marc Foxx show, he hired a stripper to rub herself against his sculptures the night before the opening, likening the procedure to “adding a lock of boar’s hair to a cauldron.”4 (With decadent sex and meaningless consumption being central themes of that exhibition, such a ritual seemed fitting.) Sexual organs remain present: vaginalike openings riddle many of the forest’s tree trunks; from the ceiling hangs a form resembling a fallopian tube, an opening at its lower end revealing spermlike shapes that appear to be wriggling their way upward.
Interestingly, by the time of the forest’s completion in early September, Ronay seemed to have found a new measure of acceptance with respect to his earlier work. Rather than dismissing it, he now sees parallels between it and his ongoing projects: “I don’t think any of my motifs have really left; I’ve just re-identified with them in a context that’s more substantial.”
At the Sept. 20 opening of Between the Worlds in San Antonio, Ronay stood, silent and unmoving, inside one of the life-size totemlike figures that loom among the trees, a costumeas-effigy designed as yet another channel of energy transference. He wanted his performance to infuse the work with vitality, not unlike the stripper’s ritual years ago. Viewers seemed to sense his presence, tiptoeing around the figure and murmuring to one another in hushed, respectful tones. the pathways through the installation are, in most areas, wide enough for only one person to pass at a time, which compels each visitor to make a solitary journey among the trees. For Ronay, the experience was hot and uncomfortable, but coping with discomfort was part of the point: “I was basically just trying to keep the panic to a minimum. Which is a goal in life in general.”
The meditative, transformative quality of Between the Worlds—evident even in an early version when i visited his studio in may, and progressively resolved throughout the summer—pervades the work’s present incarnation. this immersive environment might feel stifling in its warm, dense, cocoonlike silence, but the components, for all their mystery, exude a calm air of order and balance, suggesting a larger, universal design. If Ronay was hoping to create a place of wordless transcendence, where chatter is blocked out and self-reflection takes hold, then he has surely succeeded.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Ronay statements, quoted or paraphrased, are from conversations and e-mail exchanges with the author, New York, May-October 2010. 2 Quoted in Joshua Mack, “Emerging Artists: Matthew Ronay,” Modern Painters, December 2005, pp. 62-63. 3 Interview with the author, New York, May 8, 2010. 4 Quoted in Brandon Stosuy, “Interview with Matthew Ronay,” The Believer, December 2005/ January 2006, p. 70; reproduced at www.believermag.com.
Between the Worlds is on view at Artpace, San Antonio, Sept. 20, 2010-Jan. 2, 2011. A modified version will appear at Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, in June 2011.
CHARLOTTE COWLES is a writer who lives in New York