Artpace, San Antonio
Through January 2, 2011
by Wendy Atwell
Wildly imaginative and utterly different from his prior visual language, Matthew Ronay’s Between the Worlds allows the visitor to experience the kind of awe and terror that Chihua Achebe references in his 1958 classic book Things Fall Apart. As with the Nigerian egwugwu ritual, in which the tribesmen disappear before putting on their costumes, suspension of disbelief is essential when viewing this work.
Ronay’s earlier sculptural installations, such as Goin’ Down, Down, Down (2006) at Parasol Unit, London feature colorful, bizarre iconic images washed in cold cynicism. Including war references, figures hanging from nooses, limp phalluses and cheeseburgers, these cartoon-painted images deftly illustrate how things have fallen apart in America. In Between the Worlds, Ronay replaces this mirror of despair with an imaginative spirit world in which time and space seem to function in a non-linear way. Ronay creates a mysterious, sacred zone like Achebe’s evil forest, the place where taboos were taken, as if the forest might cleanse them, the way trees remove toxins in air.
In this two-part exhibition, a room on the east side displays videos on a loop (Cloak 1, 2, 3 and 4, all 2009) while an installation commissioned by Artpace takes up the larger western portion of the space. The series of videos portrays the artist dressed in four different hooded black cloaks, moving mysteriously on screen. In one case, another figure joins the artist inside of a double cloak. These shaman-like costumes recall African and Aboriginal tribal motifs and are adorned with beads, papier-mâché rocks and paint. Only the artist’s bare legs visible as he spins, steps and dances to drum-like beats, or abstract sounds of wind and storm. The figures’ movements are slow and organic, like a mating ritual, something coded into DNA.
The costumes, sounds and dance movements set the tone for the forest installation. A tented room within a room, only the exterior walls made from soft black fabric are visible from the darkened walkway around the room’s periphery, illuminated by dim spotlights. This blank limbo space serves as a transition from the viewer’s world to the installation, indicating a separation from reality.
Through an elongated vertical slit, the viewer may enter an abstracted forest filled with fantastical flora and fauna. Strings of mushroom-shaped beads adorn a veil of tulle, which hangs from a papier-mâché tree limb. Bearded guardian figures, with abstracted crescent eyes, stand throughout. A papier-mâché egg hangs inside black fabric tube, painted in patterns of yellow and white and lit from within. The palette evokes a magical world, with variations of black and white and small touches of orange, yellow, red and gold.
Ronay has fabricated an entire artistic ecosystem within this space, symbiosis occurring through pattern, color, form and material, leaving the viewer spellbound. Shock and cynicism are replaced with a sense of wonder and discovery. Ronay’s elaborate costumes recall Nick Cave’s soundsuits, while the high level craft and detail in his installation reference the intensity of Saya Woolfalk’s utopian “No Place.” Yet with the combination his forest and shaman dances, this work of art transcends the novelty of their invention; it feels like an offering from the artist. Ronay becomes a kind of emissary, bringing awareness that there is much we have yet to conceive.
Ronay’s offering may serve a function similar to Achebe’s forest, a sublime place to take everything that is wrong in the world. The skeletal black and white motifs suggest the existence of a spiritual underpinning and it is through the artist’s obsessive creations and ritualistic performances that he conjures this realm to life.
Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio.