by Sven Eberlein
Last Saturday night something amazing happened: An artist who’d been dwelling in relative obscurity for most of his career popped onto the scene like a cork of a fine, aged bottle of wine. Well, perhaps not quite that dramatic — after all, Matt136 aka Matt Ritchie has been showing his art at various galleries for a couple of years now. Thing is, the solo show at the reputable and fabulous Autobody Gallery in Alameda finally provided the kind of stage reflective of the caliber of this artist’s work.
See Matt Ritchie’s work in our Lightbulbs gallery.
I write with a certain degree of personal bias — I have known Matt and followed his life and artistic journey for over 20 years — yet not in the sense of a cheerleading friend trying to drag everyone to this guy’s show for some feelgood value, but because Matt is one of the most dedicated, passionate, prolific, and insanely gifted artists out there today, and I have the long-term study to back up the claim.
We first met at Cal State Hayward in the late 1980s, and it was pretty clear from the beginning that this kid had a little extra fire burning in his heart. Whatever he was doing, whether it was swimming, skateboarding, drawing, or just hanging out with friends, he was really into it, as if there was no tomorrow, no second chance to get it exactly right.
In the early and mid-’90s we were part of the Hayward House, a loose artist collective that brought together musicians, poets, visual and performance artists jamming off each other and putting together multimedia shows and parties. The thing about Matt though was that he was never as interested in showing his drawings as he was in drawing them. I think it was partly because he was such a perfectionist that he didn’t quite feel ready to strut his stuff, but also because his artwork was and is so deeply personal, a catharsis, his own private therapy, and it takes time and a certain amount of soul growth to share that with the world.
In the late 90s it became pretty clear that he was in it for good: Late twenties, got married, had a kid, time to shed the skater cartoonist image and get a real life, right? Turns out it never was an image in the first place — making art was his real life, or as Tim Burton expressed so brilliantly in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, he had long ago decided that he was going to be “maintaining the spirit of seeing things.” In fact, having a family only deepened his commitment to the creative process, to use these powerful new personal experiences to feel the full force of life, to learn, grow and be scared all at the same time, and channel the whole crazy emotional carnival into his work.
And work he did. Pretty much 24/7. During his day gig as park ranger. Between diaper changes. In the middle of the night, after the family had gone to bed. It was not unusual for him to sit at his drafting table till 2am, go for a walk to air out his head, then come back for more. But it wasn’t just some random obsession to crank out boatloads of memorabilia that kept him up at night, it was a desperate quest for meaning, for the opportunity to lift the heavy curtain on the cosmic orchestra and begin to make sense of that mysterious sound emanating through his own pores.
Speaking of sound, you can’t talk about Matt Ritchie’s art without mentioning his profound love of music, Jazz in particular. It was at the time when Charlie Hunter, the Broun Fellinis and Alphabet Soup were heating up the SF music scene and our weekly trips to the Elbo Room and the Up and Down Club were like church visits when Matt’s palette not only expanded in new directions but the shapes and colors of his work became deeper, more confident, touched by transcendence. Pencil and ball point pen drawings morphed into paintings, and to this day I think his portraits of Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy are milestones in his shift from technically impeccable to universally meaningful.
Without putting my own musical explorations anywhere near the same galaxy as these two gentlemen, I’m proud to say that Chemystry Set‘s first two albums served as great fodder for Matt’s musical hunger — the ball point pen rendering for Life in the Underground is still one of the most breathtakingly insane drawings I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I believe The Space Between cover was his first foray into acrylic on canvas, opening the door to all the lush and vibrant eye candy you’ll see at the show.
One thing remained a constant throughout all these years, even as his portfolio grew and blossomed like a spring cherry: If you wanted to see Matt’s work you had to go over to his house. By the time the new millennium had come and gone the place looked like a museum on steroids, covering way too much wall space to even infer any curatorial intention. When asked whether he would ever try to sell any of his work, the response was usually a hybrid between “They’re not ready” and “I can’t let them go,” spiced with a zesty little “You wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway, dude.” At this point, he had got into 3D work, and together with his wife Michelle’s exquisite handmade Dia de los Muertos Altars, his wood cuts, shadow boxes, and even mobiles were bulging and hanging from every last patch of domestic real estate.
However, it wasn’t until 2005 that fate called and demanded this treasure chest of epic personal artistic proportion to be turned on its head and spilled on the floor for all the world to see. As painful and infinitely bitter as it was to watch our dear friend, soul mate, and fellow creative muse Tony Idarola fight and eventually succumb to skin cancer, Tony’s parting gift to all of us was his ever growing love and care not only for his close friends but for the world at large, known and unknown. Here was a guy in the most messed up situation the mind could imagine, yet with each additional piece of bad body news his heart seemed to open another mile, and Matt was right there with him.
When I look at Matt’s most recent work, much of which is on display at this show, I am struck by how much the themes have expanded from autobiographical depictions of angst and despair to a much broader embrace of human suffering. Wherever you look, there are wonderfully nuanced and textured bridges between the personal and transpersonal, between the war within and other people’s war, between inner struggles in the search for meaning and society’s often farcical attempts at fabricating an ethos of safety and belonging. It’s as if he realized that his world is our world too, and that by making the connection and sharing his most preciously held wounds he’s inviting all of us to gain a little more insight into the long and winding road to compassion. See for yourself.
January 8 – February 7, 2010
Autobody Fine Art | 1517 Park Street, Alameda, CA
Gallery Hours: Wed – Sun, Noon – 6PM
more photos from the opening here