Apocalypse Now

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

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 on view 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 portentousness of their subject matter, neither prophet is a grizzly old man with a beard. Cheerful palette, sprightly mark-making, 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; animated projections; a sculpture, and a bank of lightbox lenticular panels with backlit photographic prints.

The vast overhanging sculpture, “The Universal Adversary” (2006), made of powder-coated aluminum and stainless steel, in turn incorporates audio-visual display to be experienced 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.

This artist 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 started life as a drawing, scanned in “infinite resolution,” then sent to the mill to be burnt into metal, and retains its flatness and linearity. The large framed canvases build up layers of different types of marks: stains, drips, loops, and squiggles that constantly play off the macroand microcosmic. “Mad professor” strings of equation accent various surfaces.

In this show Mr. Ritchie has shed the trademark cutout vinyl with which he habitually covers walls and floors, but there is plenty to keep the eye busy. The lightbox display, “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 reminds me of the popular mid-century Polish-born muralist Feliks Topolski, who was active in Mr. Ritchie’s native Britain.

In both detail and totality alike, there is no question that Mr. Ritchie is blessed with a deft touch. He creates fun, lively environments, and thanks to a relentless 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, fail to camouflage an underlying 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 accept 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 each firing into the air — meticulously rendered bullets punctuate the sky above his head. “Execution of John Brown” (2005) has the tight, nervous awkwardness mixed with weirdly joyous stains and splatters that marks Mr. Furnas as an exceptional illustrator. His penchant for sanguinary spray and splay recalls the caricatures of Gerald Scarfe, especially his legendary album cover for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” A series of portraits of generic politicos (bearing slight resemblances to President Clinton and Tzipi Livni) bear titles like “Greedy Piggy” and “Heart F–ker” and are painted in urethane and spirits on burnt calfskin 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 exquisite pinkness that exceed anatomical credibility: In no. 1, his torso is made up of beads of blood, while his head sends the stuff in all directions.

The major 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 20 and 30 feet 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 rich array of tones, with a sense — abetted by a luscious muscularity in the paint — that each 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, brushed or sprayed, these rivers of blood flow lovingly, conveying adolescent affection over apocalyptic indignation, the moral ambiguity at the heart of this artist’s aesthetic.

Ritchie until October 28 (525 W. 24th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-607-6000);

Furnas until October 21 (509 W. 24th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-680-5889).

The New York Sun

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