by Alan Brake
In the three years since finishing his master of fine arts degree at Yale University, contemporary sculptor and Louisville native Matthew Ronay, 28, seems headed for levels of success many artists must strive their entire lives to realize.
The duPont Manual High School graduate’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Munich and Vienna. Prominent galleries in both New York and Los Angeles regularly show his pieces, which have been favorably reviewed in national arts journals. In 2002, ArtNews dubbed him “one of the 100 hottest young artists to collect.”
However, Ronay’s greatest exposure is yet to come — as one of 60 artists included in this year’s Biennial at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, on display through the /files/storyimages/of May. The Biennial, arguably the most important survey of the state of contemporary visual arts in the U.S., remains the most anticipated event in the American art world, and there is no greater public platform for a young artist.
Ronay’s sculptures are, typically, miniature scenes of ordinary objects — houses, trains, animals, trees — in unexpected settings and combinations with skewed shifts in scale and perception. But don’t call his pieces surrealist; he prefers the term “super-realist.” The distinction is important to him.
Surrealists like Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte were deeply concerned with psychoanalysis, a then newly formed field emerging out of the work of Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. The working styles of such artists dramatized the perceived sinister side of the subconscious. Ronay dislikes what he calls the “shock value” of their work, and prefers to build associations from memories and iconography that can engage both positive and negative emotions.
His pieces reside more closely at the intersection of surrealism and Pop Art. Often brightly colored and created from wood, plaster and other materials that can be easily worked by hand, Ronay’s tableaus are often praised as much for the quality of their workmanship and ability to engage the viewer as for the strength of their ideas.
And the artist is full of ideas. A bit prone to the artspeak of an intellectually trained artist (he received his undergraduate degree from the Maryland Institute’s College of Art before attending Yale), Ronay will describe the specific meaning of a piece and then dismiss his own interpretation. “My work is really about flattening hierarchies of interpretations,” he says.
The Hidden Wind of Inducement, 2003
He describes his sculptures like novels — not plot-driven potboilers, but impressionistic open-ended stories. (A lover of literature, he admires Italian fabulist Italo Calvino and the French writers of the mid-20th-century nouveau roman movement, also known as anti-novelists, who dispensed with previous notions of plot, character, style, theme, psychology, chronology and message.)
“Viewers collaborate with the work; when you read novels, authors are absolved of intention,” Ronay explains. His inspiration comes from sources as diverse as French Romantic painting and American funk bands of the 1970s, dismissing distinctions between high and low art, as is common among artists of his generation.
And while Ronay uses familiar iconography with an almost child-like scale, his work explores major themes and historical events. In The Hidden Wind of Inducement, Ronay says, he explores the settlement of the New World, questioning why settlers would abandon post-Renaissance Europe for the primal wilds of the Americas, and how this “call of the wild” led to the eventual destruction of virgin landscape. In the sculpture, this serious subject matter is represented by tongue-in-cheek imagery.
A water-filled font at the rear of the installation indicates the initial mental spark of exploration, which “flows” into iconography of idealism and promised religious freedom (cornucopia, golden chalice), combined with suggestions of entrapment and defeat. “At the /files/storyimages/of it all, the settlers ended up having to cultivate the land they’d revered and changed it,” says Ronay, “regressing to a level of lower sophistication than they had left behind in Europe.”
New York gallery owner Andrea Rosen is known for spotting promising talents and developing them into major art world players, and she has included Ronay in several group shows.
Between the Chaplain and the Jester/Executioner, (detail) 2003
“I look for a few things in artists — a level of commitment, confidence about how an artist sees his work in the world, and a fresh mind,” says Rosen. “Matthew has all of those things.”
She describes the Whitney Biennial as “a magnifying glass,” and cautions that “the art world judges people harshly, because collectors and patrons want to be immortalized by the artists they collect.” It remains to be seen if these taste-makers will respond favorably to his work, and if they will be able to see themselves through his off-kilter world view.
Ronay credits growing up in Louisville for shaping his unfettered themes and style. “Manual gave me a lot of freedom,” he says. “They let me do what I wanted to do.”
In high school that freedom included playing in and forming numerous bands, an interest he still pursues in Brooklyn, where he now lives with his wife. He also worked as a model-builder for Louisville architect and glass artist Ken von Roenn after high school. “That really helped train my attention to detail,” he says.
Only time will tell if this young artist earns staying power in the famously fickle world of visual art, but if his earnestness and hard work are any indication, he has a real shot. For all his early success, Ronay remains modest and reasonable in his goals. “I just want to be able to keep doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I just want the right things to happen.”