Four years after Matthew Ronay overhauled his style from comic grotesque to soberly spiritual, his ambitious new installation feels like an apotheosis. Dramatically veiled behind a huge black curtain, an enchanted forest populated by birds of prey, totemic figures and fertility symbols invites pleasurable discovery and even a sense of wonder at the level of detail, imagination and effort involved. A lingering question remains, however, as to what you’re supposed to do with this otherworldly space.
Considering that Ronay’s previous pieces have included sculptures of hamburgers alongside delicately arching penises with bites taken out of them, it’s hard to believe that the artist is being entirely straight-faced here. In the gallery handout, he suggests that he wants to give gallerygoers an opportunity to transcend the quotidian by offering them a genuine spiritual experience. Yet with all the papier-mâché volcanoes, trees made of Ikea-like prints, diminutive beings and the cutest owls this side of Disney lying about, they’ll have to stop chuckling first.
Abundant mushroom imagery (growing on felled trees, hanging in chains) suggests some sort of transport of the mind. But it’s the commanding Masculine Pillar—a robed column with a giant eyelike symbol—that grabs attention by virtue of appearing to conceal someone inside, as it did on the show’s opening night, when Ronay occupied it. Which is a reminder that while forests are classic settings for fantastical tales, characters are what make a story, so Ronay’s installation feels a little hollow when it’s empty. Without the presence of a person, the installation is like a stage set, and all the totems simply props with no ritual significance to add to their relevance. Thus, the piece’s potential to achieve the artist’s hoped-for transcendence is diminished.
Originally published in Time Out New York, issue 823, August 4-10, 2011.