Installation view of “When Two Are In One,” 2016. Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Irresponsible Objects: A Conversation with Matthew Ronay

Entering a Matthew Ronay exhibition is like walking through a deserted kindergarten, with ice-cream-colored sculptures strewn around a play area. Ronay, who approaches his creative configurations with genuine curiosity, attributes his childlike approach to color blindness and an insistence on scribbling things down. Penciled patterns become intuitive templates for heavier charcoal drawings, as well as blueprints for sculpted forms. Working with no clear intention, Ronay sees his drawings as explorations of his mind, exercises intended to trigger automatic inventions that, once fleshed out in wood and plastic, colored, and pieced together as complete sculptures, become the basis for an unconscious canon of objects that play with attraction and repulsion, figuration and abstraction, balance and imbalance. They may begin as recognizable forms, summed up under the categories of “stylish gastronomy,” “sterilized body parts,” or “soft diseases,” but they quickly succumb to an otherworldly quality, becoming breeding grounds for doubt and desire, particularly in relation to the body, its deterioration, and its ultimate demise. Out of this fear and unease, Ronay cultivates a beauty of truth, warts and all.

Penetration Regression, 2015. Basswood, dye, and steel, 31 x 36 x 8 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist, Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY, Mark Foxx, Los Angeles, and Nils Staerk, Copenhagen

Rajesh Punj: How does drawing operate for you?
Matthew Ronay: It is important to understand that the sculptures almost always start as drawings that are done automatically. I draw all the time, never on assignment. There is an essay about this—that a sculpture almost always starts as a two-dimensional image, and then it gets passed on to another person of me. I do everything myself, but the two people are different—one is drawing, the other making.

RP: Are there moments when you concentrate exclusively on drawings?
: No, I draw all the time. I think of it like sponges or bottom-feeders that feed on waste. My strength comes from my ability to relax and filter my unconscious, which includes personal psychology, universal psychology, science, or any of these things.

RP: Is the automatic action of drawing about arriving at a point in which you are free of initial inhibitions?
MR: I am also a meditation practitioner so, the goal, if there is a goal, is to get to a place where I am not really attached to any sort of will. For years, I used to talk a lot about “muscle memory.” There is a thing inside my body that makes me do certain kinds of lines, that leads to a certain kind of vocabulary. I still think that is true, but the goal, the journey of drawing for me, is to be in a place where I am not really thinking about any goals, where I almost become a vehicle for what happens.

RP: Does it take a long time for the action to become entirely involuntary?
: I used to draw with pencil in a tiny book, which required being very precise, and the drawings happened very quickly, sometimes in 30 seconds. The paper was so small, there was zero risk. For me, the object is to draw continually, so that I am not waiting for inspiration. It is almost like a river—I get into the river, and it goes where it goes; then I get out of the river to do things like produce.

RP: “Ramus,” your recent exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in Paris, was a departure for you. How did you organize it? Did you use a maquette of the space to decide on the placement of the works?
: When I first visited the spaces, I understood immediately what I wanted to do. But in my studio, I have a space like a “clean room,” a big platform where I place works to look at and photograph. For my exhibitions, I work on a series of objects and then also unify those objects, placing them on a piece of fabric, a series of pedestals, or coming away from the wall for a more immersive experience. So, viewers are not only asked to consider the sculpture discretely, but also to see it in relationship to everything else.

At Perrotin, there was an opportunity to have a quieter, more contemplative setup, with each room featuring a series of three works. It was an opportunity that I hadn’t really had before in relation to the pedestals, yet there was still a relationship of stage and audience—or it could be actors and audience, judge and financier. There is a triangulation that happens in every room, and so it is a much more subtle way to organize objects. Before, I laid the works out in a long line, as in a procession, with some sort of implied order or rationality.

Installation view of “Ramus,” 2018. Perrotin, Paris. Photo: Claire Dorn, Courtesy Perrotin

RP: So, you think about how and where the works are shown, creating dreamlike settings that are as much about the “landscape” as the works that occupy it.
MR: This was a very quiet version of presentation for me; there have been others with a greater presence. I’ve created whole installations in previous exhibitions, including one that resembled a Buddhist temple—there were the four golden gates on the outside, with four directions inside and a main point of power that resembled a stupa. At the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, all of the sculptures were in one space, so it became more like a procession, with a specific order. There have been larger projects where everything was again presented like a procession, moving toward an end wall, or where everything was placed on fabric, and the choice of material mimicked the body.

RP: What determined the change in “Ramus”?
: I just had a feeling, which was not necessarily about stubbornness on my part. Sometimes I am not sure, but I explore my vision for a space, and often I arrive at a point where my initial intuition is right. In Miami, I had already chosen most of the works that I wanted to make, but then, all at once, it came to me that I wanted a system of layered fabric islands. Once I imagined this drawing, I realized that the whole thing was a schematic of the body, with a head and respiratory and digestive systems. But with “Ramus,” I wanted something less specific. For me, it is almost scientific, as if the individual sculptures were specimens from a family of cybernetic creatures. They appear part natural, part unnatural. And for that reason, the show needed a quiet and ordered setup conducive to examination. There is nothing between you and contemplating the sculpture, only something unobtrusive like a pedestal.

RP: The height of the pedestals is intriguing. Is it important that we look down on your sculptures?
: I am never sure. In some shows, the works were placed directly on the floor. At the beginning, I showed them with no pedestal, no fabric, nothing. Part of this is that it forces viewers to consider how they react to things. There is something I like about this being the kind of thing that happens, and you have to react or you can choose not to; and if you ignore that, then possibly you are not willing to engage with them.

RP: Your point about these works resembling specimens leads me to think about science museums and their displays. Are you creating some kind of narrative with these works?
: These works are specific to this show, but nature and science are a huge part of my work. My earliest work, though done automatically, was representational, but over the years, I have moved further, and further, and further into abstraction. In the very beginning, I talked about my work in terms of narrative, using it to demonstrate that disparate objects could conform to a story. I would call it a forensic interpretation, like when Sherlock Holmes arrives on the scene, and noticing a scratch on the wall made with a particular kind of boot, he triangulates it with something else and manages to solve the mystery.

Installation view of “Ramus,” with (back to front): Midnight Ascent, 2017, basswood, dye, gouache, canvas, flocking, plastic, and steel, 139.7 x 119.4 x 8.9 cm.; and Terra/Firmament, 2017, basswood, dye, gouache, flocking, plastic, and steel, 69.9 x 60.3 x 53.3 cm. Photo: Claire Dorn, Courtesy Perrotin

As I moved away from representation, I found myself asking, “How do I talk about, how do I understand, the content?” Through a weird series of happenings, I have come to understand that the unconscious understands science or nature in a way that is not didactic or empirical, but may come from the stages of evolution, from whatever life was before it was life to where we are now. The history or memory of past incarnations may be in our DNA, or it may be buried in our unconscious. Not only do we understand the universe because we come from its material, the stars, but as we evolved into walking and thinking people with a conscience, we also became aware of microscopics. Maybe what we call biomorphic abstraction comes from a series of people who had relaxed enough to understand their relationship to their past forms or mutations. But this still doesn’t explain how, over the entire period when I am drawing or sculpting—and for a sculpture that can be 80 or a 100 hours—I am still trying to figure out what this thing is and where it came from.

When any particular work comes close to completion, I am also trying to figure out a title—I am very interested in language and where words come from. Researching titles on the Internet, nine times out of 10, I find that my shapes relate to something empirical—tumors, molecular structures, and static systems that actually exist. Then I go back and see that all of these processes have psychological counterparts. I love titling works, and I like to find words, especially scientific ones, that are very specific. One of my works is called Trophallaxis, which explains the process by which an older animal eats something and regurgitates it for a younger animal. When I drew these two things, there was an incredible energy of the negative space between them, and somehow I arrived at the word to explain it. The physiological relationship is deep, like the love or bond between a parent and a progeny. When you are looking at the sculpture, you don’t have to get all that, but you understand that the space between these two sculpted objects is where something might happen—it could be anything, a kiss or sex, but there is something.

Divided Egg Green Burrowing, 2015. Basswood, plastic, steel, dye, shellac-based primer, and gouache, 29 x 16 x 15 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist, Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY, Mark Foxx, Los Angeles, and Nils Staerk, Copenhagen

RP: You are, in your own way, almost redefining the premise of drawing, which is almost always regarded as a preliminary exercise to the creation of something more complete. In writing, there is the idea that you can suffer from “writer’s block.” Drawing, too, can be problematic if you become over-conscious of it. You, however, appear to apply pencil to paper as though simply registering your presence.
MR: With drawing, there is not as much refining as in writing. There are certain images and vocabularies that I repeat. As a very disciplined person, I have a strange relationship with repetition. There is a part of me that gains strength from repetition, and then there is part of me that is not satisfied and needs invention and something new. The imbalance is what makes creativity. Balance does not always encourage a creative moment, but imbalance—the way that two things don’t fit together—creates the tension that allows for greater creativity. When I am drawing, I am in a state of searching. But saying that, sometimes I find myself drawing the same thing. I try to relax. I am just drawing; I’m not asking for anything. It functions in the same way you need to eat, scratch an itch, or have sex.

RP: Your drawing process appears to induce a trance-like state, which is evident in the finished objects. Does that carry over into the making of your cut and colored forms?
MR: If you stand to the side of Move, Swallow, Breathe (2017), you can see the edges of the tree, because the work was originally conceived as one piece of wood. A lot of my sculptures are done in that way. In nature, things often grow in such a way that there is no space between them; for example, your liver, pancreas, and spleen have no space between them because it’s anatomically impossible. Similarly, knots tend to grow in a tree where there isn’t any space between the branch and the trunk.

I often work by gluing pieces of wood together into one. I use a bandsaw to make the pieces, cutting wood away from wood, and then I have parts that already fit together perfectly. I sculpt each part and color the pieces in a particular dye so that you can still see the wood grain and all of the handmade qualities. It is a very special process, because the different cuts of wood take the dye in different ways, which has to do with how the tree grew. When you cut or scratch across the grain, you break the cellular structure, so the dye is immediately absorbed. But parallel to the grain, especially if it is very smooth, the cellular walls are never broken and for that reason it doesn’t take the dye so well. Dyeing wood is kind of like staining, but while staining is normally related to trying to make one kind of wood look like another, this is not about the natural color of wood—it is about altering the appearance of the material.

Double Orbing Fields, 2015. Basswood, plastic, steel, dye, flocking, and shellac-based primer, 28 x 24 x 13 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist, Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY, Mark Foxx, Los Angeles, and Nils Staerk, Copenhagen

RP: How do you explain the anatomy of your work in terms of space?
: If I think about it as space, it is to do with negative space, because it is based on a drawing. Sculpture can obviously work that way too, but, for me, it is about negative spaces, particularly spaces in which forms are barely touching. When I was working on this body of work last summer, I started making bigger sketches.

RP: Do you ever exhibit your drawings with your sculptures?
: Not usually, but every now and then I do. Though it is interesting in theory to show the drawings and sculptures together, I think that when they are in the same space, it becomes about that relationship. For the drawing to be taken seriously, it needs to be its own end point.

RP: Your drawings are like mental exercises—in a few marks, you appear to capture exactly what you want in a sculpture.
: That is the crazy thing, and it’s the reason why my approach includes extreme loyalty to what I draw. The amazing thing about charcoal is that it creates a variety of textures and lends itself to sculpting in basswood. I don’t always know how to translate rubbing and erasing, but I try. Another thing I like about working from drawing is that a blemish of any kind is really difficult to reproduce. When you are sculpting, it is much easier to have the planes smooth, because you can sand or texturize more easily.
When you have a bump, you have to work around it.

RP: So, a minor detail can become a major factor in the creative process.
: You can become very dedicated to it because it is special. For me, drawing preserves all the eccentricities, which I find hard with sculpting. These eccentricities define the individuality of every natural shape—trees have abnormal growths, your ear has a little bump, and your face is not symmetrical. I find these things really exciting, as much as I find them slightly disturbing. For example, we think of growth as a positive function of nature, but sometimes it goes haywire and produces cancer or tumors.

My work has a non-duality for me, in the sense that it is part celebration and part dealing with darkness, sadness even, because there is evidence of growth and decomposition—of balance and imbalance. The “Ramus” works have a weird, synthetic element to them, a kind of cybernetic quality, whereby you have a natural shape and then a corresponding part that becomes machine-like, but they are dependent, and they govern together. One element is alive, and the other possibly isn’t. So, what is it? Is it a filtering system? Is it a kidney, bile, or something else?

Matthew Ronay at Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: Claire Dorn, Courtesy the artist and Perrotin

RP: I suppose that most viewers understand these works refer to the body in some way. Is that too literal an understanding of what you are doing?
: What resonates with me most about looking at art, and what I appreciate most about making it, is that the object remains an extremely irresponsible area of communication. When you are writing an essay, the agreement is that you have to make sense, and I have to do due diligence to be a good reader. But what is great about art, possibly its last remaining quality, is that it asks us to be irresponsible. It is asking us to take a chance, to make a mistake, if it is possible, and go out on a limb and see something. Some of the best experiences happen right there. When you are looking at one of my works, you may unconsciously be getting “body,” and maybe that makes you uncomfortable and you don’t want to look; but that is the great thing that can happen when you are looking at art. People forget that the body contains all these different avenues that can be used for interpretation.

We are afraid of what is going to happen to us, uncomfortable with the fact that we are deteriorating. And on the other side of that coin, the body is funny, it makes weird noises and does weird things that are unique to each individual. The physiological aspect of things—sex, sneezing, farting, stomach noises—is funny and weird. The organs each have their own weird, festive, or disgusting qualities. There is an interesting relationship between what is funny versus what is disgusting that probably parallels function. A liver, for example, filters and secretes bile—it looks disgusting, with an odd color and even odder shape. I believe there is an unconscious language of nature on that level of art, or at least in our interpretation of it. When you see a tree with a crazy growth, it looks dark and weird, but it is not necessarily bad. It’s the same thing in the case of a crazy mole with hair sticking out. I try to erase the value so I can celebrate the hairy mole, because it is so fun to look at.

RP: When you speak about abnormalities, I think of the extreme opposite—a machine aesthetic. Many of us right now want the same uniform, perfect things and aspire to conform to the same standard of physical beauty. Are we guilty of being afraid to celebrate difference or individual and psychological diversity, despite our lip service to inclusivity?
: For me, those things diverge out of the same place. If we think of Minimalism, perhaps of a James Turrell, there is great bravery in making something so incredibly silent whereby you are not really seeing very much at all. I love that, but it is not my will. I want to celebrate the opposite—the maximal, tactile nature of objectness.