For his 10.3 Hudson (Show)Room exhibition, Between the Worlds, Matthew Ronay transforms the gallery into an imaginary “primordial forest.” The result of a prolonged dialogue with Artpace Executive Director Matthew Drutt, it consists of stylized terrestrial flora and fauna as well as sea creatures. The densely packed installation can be read as a woodland retreat, underwater lair, or area within our collective unconscious. Upon walking into the darkened exhibition, the viewer is confronted by intense white patterning-dashes, dots, circles, chevrons, and eyes-on a stark black backdrop that surrounds (and encloses) the environment. The prolific mark making records the artist’s presence in the space, and the “all-seeing eyes” heighten the drama. The repetitive use of eyes in Ronay’s exhibition is not explicitly clear. However the all-seeing eye can be found in Egyptian, Buddhist, and Christian religions; and in some cultures, the eye is used as a symbol to ward off evil spirits.
A cloaked, human-sized figure with a crescent-shaped head piece and several masked minions serve as shamanistic characters that dwell within the theatrical setting. Dark, fabric trees that stretch from floor to ceiling, ominous, ceremonial-type artifacts, strings of hanging beads, and dozens of ogling eyes create an anxious environment where the viewer is not quite sure about the friendliness of the place or its inhabitants. Owls loom in the tree branches, their presence not clearly defined. The nocturnal bird has a long history in mythology, associated with both good and evil. Less a symbol of death and witchcraft as it once was, the owl in contemporary society most commonly refers to knowledge and wisdom.
Reading the installation strictly as a forest is problematized by the aquatic references found throughout the room. Small sea shells resting on the floor, wooden, squid-shaped obelisks, and jellyfish-like forms challenge the specificity of the location and keep interpretation fluid, as if oscillating between two states of mind. Indeed, through a marine lens, objects that look like plants become sea anemone, flowers become coral, and stars become bubbles in this hybrid space. The masked figures also have an otherworldly appearance that rises above terrestrial references.
Perhaps the most suggestive of archetypes and ceremony in Between the Worlds are these masked figures of undefined origin. In shamanistic fashion the artist himself occupied a large, poncho-style costume for the opening night of the exhibition as a way to invest the cloak with “focused” energy, an important quality he goes to great lengths to emphasize. The smaller masked sculptures convey similar vibes through their echoing of primitive African and Oceanic ceremonial masks. Ronay explains that through carving, painting, and sculpting these objects by hand, he is transferring his energies to each individual piece, enlivening them with magical qualities.
While Ronay’s imagery, iconography, and process have evolved from his earlier sculptures, the artist’s fundamental concerns have not. A keen observer of how belief systems are manifested in human behavior, he has abandoned the cynicism of his previous works to create from an instinctive unmediated perspective, focusing on a collective, intuitive understanding of form and material. Ultimately the shamanistic objects and costumes assembled in Between the Worlds reveal a metaphysical experience that will be unique to every visitor.
-Alexander Freeman, Education Curator