A conversation with Matthew Ronay

"I'm always searching for that tranquil place from which to experience fully and without fear good and bad, wounding and healing. 

But literally being in the studio has it's purifying qualities, like the first artist, it's primordial struggle to understand and untangle, to create imagery spontaneously out of a need to emphasize what is moving and harmonious."  -Matthew Ronay

"Inspired by the psychoanalytic Carl Jung and the mythologist Joseph Campbell Ronay works with his intuition in order to reach an expression that reach us at a fundamental and collective unconscious level. His enigmatic sculptures and stagings engender a strange remembrance of something primal and instinctively original that lies deeply buried in the consciousness of modern man."  (taken from a press release)

Matthew Ronay's work has fascinated me for years, and most importantly grown with me over the years, from earlier Marc Foxx shows of fleshy colored MDF forms to recent exhibitions at Andrea Rosen, and La Conserva in Spain.  Six months ago on an early Saturday morning, Matthew Ronay and I met up for coffee here in Los Angeles. He spoke of "Between the worlds," an exhibition that was presented in Spain, explaining the women that would come up to the fantastical installation: where gloved hands were reaching through holes, moving balls through fingertips, silently raising eyebrows, as they looked in curiosity.  I've returned to thinking about those women who experienced Ronay's installation, and pondered what went through their mind. In my late teens, I remember an Edvard Munch show, and as I was staring at a painting in one of the galleries, I looked over at 3 women in their seventies casually chatting.  I overheard one of the women telling her friend that Munch's work was "really only about sex and death, death and sex, and sex and death." I'm not quite sure why I remember that moment so clearly, but perhaps it was the first honest and open attempt to understand and simplify an artist's work. It also seemed to sum up so much of life in general. I admired those women quietly and bravely talking amongst themselves, attempting to explain what they saw, and even felt. 

I witness a connection with Munch's and Ronay's work, a certain sort of darkness looming on the surface if you were to glance quickly. But in reality, there is such an openness and thrill leading towards symbolic truth. A voyage! A couple months ago, I wrote Brian Ferry, a beyond talented photographer to shoot Ronay's studio in New York.  When I look at these gorgeous photographs through Ferry's eyes, I'm drawn to the colors in Ronay's latest works.  A  large wall hanging in electric blues, amorphic sculptures in acid oranges, and Matthew sitting in the middle of it, engaged with his craft, hiding among the trees.  Thank you to Matthew and to Brian. This indeed is a special piece. - David John

Drawing. How do you draw, with what utensils do you prefer to draw? What makes a "good" or "preferred" drawing?  

I have many different ways of drawing. But all forms of drawing I've always felt are closest to the flame of creativity. Depending on what the necessity of desire is, drawing changes. The two most enjoyable to me are drawing done to satisfy the conscious urge to create (which can be done consciously or unconsciously), and the other is drawing done unconsciously. Satisfying the creative urge happens anywhere, from in bed, to the subway, in the studio. It is deliberate and it is usually complete in transmission and done quickly. Unconscious drawing, or doodling I suppose, I find more enlightening in its lack of imposed will, as if it comes out of your muscles and inner being and has no timeline. I think it's for this reason that it happens while you're on the phone, playing cards (in the case of Charles Burchfield), or extremely relaxed. This kind of drawing I think of as vertical  while the other type tends to be more dispersed and horizontal. With both of these types of drawing I wouldn't say that I see something behind my eye and I breathe life into it. It's more abstract than that. it's almost a non visual, like touching something in the dark. I'm never quite sure what will happen.

My materials change over time. I change the paper I use over three of four year periods. Right now I use note pads that I find around or steel from my studio-mate or I use the Japanese notebooks by KOKUYO that give me the opportunity to have a little more continuity. I use a Paper mate PHD mechanical pencil mostly. But I also like the Unit-ball Vision fine point roller ball or the Le Pen is fun. Sometimes but very rarely I do gouache or water colors. To me a good drawing has a magnetic feeling that illuminates the self. It feels right. It usually has a great balance of familiar and unfamiliar. That is if I have the criteria being a drawing that becomes a sculpture. But also I sometime prefer a drawing that requires more effort and patience, that has nothing to do with searching and more to do with marking time or repeating lines and shapes. Another type of drawing that is enjoyable is a more practical type. A kind of drawing that I do when I need to investigate form or the placement of things. I already know the image I just need to find out what feels right. It's so much faster than sculpting and with no risks. This is something I do in the studio and I find mysterious because there are so many permutations on the same theme, each almost the same yet totally different.

What are the different emotions you feel when you are in your studio? Anything you battle with?  Are there moments of total clarity and how do you deal with it, and form it?  

I'm normally ecstatic in the studio. Working for me is everything. Routine is strength to me. I focus in on the act of making in a trance-like mind frame. Many times I must wear multiple forms of safety protection which give me a quality of sensory deprivation which helps set the tone of focus. If I'm not running machinery, I'm usually entranced by music, often dancing by myself, or if I'm not listening to music I like to whistle..sometimes with a lot of vibrato.

I battle with the distraction of the internet and often with that terrible insecure feeling when the thing you are working on is just not right. Insecurity is a battle. And of course boredom, sometimes you just don't want to work and unfortunately I usually do the ignorant thing and stay here and feel bored instead of going out and searching for inspiration. Moments of clarity are elusive and usually they happen when I am running machinery and feeling focused and disciplined. Those usually allow me to work for periods measured in hours versus my normal 30-45 minute bursts. 

What forms have been repeating lately in your works?  What connections have you pulled from these recurring forms? 

Lately: Mountains, bells, digestive shapes, filters, votives, orifice (eye, nostril, anus, vagina, ear), sun/moon, seedpod, phallus, tongue, bead (cell).  The connection I think is a tranquility, a watching, a fantasy feeling of other worlds, a natural and curiously corporeal vibe.


The large blue wall hanging in your studio with the orange triangle. Tell me about this work. The materials, the forms, the narrative if there is one. 

The materials are gouache and shellac-based primer on cinefoil. Cinefoil is a matte black aluminum foil that is used in photography to mask lighting. The piece is part of a large tableau I'm working on for the Lyon Biennial. This part is the back wall of the piece. The piece in its simplified form is the journey from this world to another. This wall is the threshold. It's a waterfall of tongues, of breathes, of phalluses falling. The repeating shape is something that I drew over and over again for quite some time, but never landed on completely until I made that painting. After working on this piece I found the shape continues to unfold. At first I believed it was a penis, naturally, but I moved on to tongue, fingernail, seedpod, vessel, body, etc. And then I believed it was something more abstract, a word, a breath. It takes the same place that the "white light" might take. it's the veil before the next chapter.

You referenced drawing as almost a "sexual compulsion," a need to create. You works seems strongly planted in sexuality, a sense of birth, and production.  Can you talk about this, and what role sexuality has had in your work? 

There is a risk involved in sexuality, a sharing and unifying, a vulnerability, this quality can create insecurity and shame, but also incredible unity. Although I'm no Catholic I have my fair share of shame. There is a lot of decision making in art and decisions open you up to shame. This is partly why chemical reaction art fascinates me. Or any art that relieves itself of decision making. On the opposite side of this coin there is something about myself that I feel is shameless and ebullient. The friction of these two attributes creates this sexual need to create beyond practical means.  In earlier works I think I sought out content that was abject and subversive, I think my attraction to this was some sort of anti-venom to numb my fears about my mortality. And I think my fear about dying came from aging obviously, but also from some sort of reaction to terrorism. Also I believe that sexuality brings out many shadowy sides of the psyche,  it creates places where violence and pleasure co-exist and where fantasy reins. In the end I think my overt use of sexuality may also have had a lot to do with my obsession with the other. Without getting too personal, while I dabble in a little fantasy and shadow in my personal sex-life, I think it was my voyeuristic side that latched onto the BDSM world and other types of extreme behavior. The difference now is that I've replaced the relatively short timeline of sexual acts with a longer more drawn out and fuller cycle of life, which of course sex is a part of.

The space as a "mystical space."  What does this mean to you?

It's not something I say a lot, but I think part of what I do is to participate with forms and symbols in a habitual way, hoping to have some self discovery. Is that part of a mystical path? I think so, but I wouldn't presume so. My participation in it veers more towards fantasy and the personal than it does the spiritual, although to me spiritual is intensely personal anyway. I really enjoy the structure of ritual and the psychological state I think it brings on. I'm always searching for that tranquil place from which to experience fully and without fear good and bad, wounding and healing. But literally being in the studio has it's purifying qualities, like the first artist, it's primordial struggle to understand and untangle, to create imagery spontaneously out of a need to emphasize what is moving and harmonious.

 The orifice. This is central to your work. What excites you about exploration of the orifice?

The orifice fascinates me because it is the barrier between us and the world. We can also experience it as a wound, which I find interesting. The orifice is the portal, the portal is often the entryway to the unknown, and the unknown has such great potentialities. I respond to the fluids that come out of the body. The processes of digestion and respiratory systems and their relationship to waste is so multilayered, and the orifice is at the center of all of these. Hearing, breathing, shitting, seeing. And I think sculpturally there is this "doubting Thomas" to the orifice and the wound. A kind of "is it real?" how does it work? I like its negative space quality, it's very suggestive. And of course the sexual, birthing aspect, the feminine aspect I find comforting and knowing.


I once took a 6 month course in hypnosis, and read a great deal about "trance" which opened my eyes to a lot of what I felt but could never put words around. Does the unconscious state have a power to you? How would you describe this state to someone?  Have you ever had a past life regression? 

The unconscious state is a huge part of what I do. But I think it's a balance. The beginning of my process can be highly unconscious but as things get rolling it balances out I think. What I respond to in a unconscious state is the surprise of seeing what is coming out. Good things next to bad things next to things that are unformed next to complete imagery, I'm talking here about drawing. when I am actually carving on things many times I feel it is akin to watching snowflakes while you're driving. thoughts about all sorts of things just float by, running off like water, usually until the physical pain of the vibrating or heat of the tool makes me stop and then a half hour has just gone by.   I have never had a past life regression although for several months while doing "floating" I did do quite a bit of recapitulation.

Your greatest fear, personal or professional?

My greatest fear is Fear. Fear of failure. I have a tendency as most creative people to be relentless to myself. To be over critical and to not accept myself for what I am. In a practical sense I fear my health declining or my family's health. Nothing else matters if you or your family is sick. Professionally I sweat the little things all the time, but I try to practice perspective, mostly I fail in this sense, but practice is failure sometimes. I'm hopeful that I would be able to create no matter the circumstance, but always lurking in the back of my mind is the fear that I'll not be able to continue because of the circumstances.

What is your relationship to the "art world."  When your career shifted, how did your collectors respond to this energetic shift, as well as the galleries?

I make the mistake often of comparing my backstage to other people's front-stage which makes me unhappy sometimes. Comparing in general leads me to unhappiness and often I don't participate in the "art world" because it can be such an awkward mess of competing egos, mine included. But I get out of the art world what I give. As far as my career, I think it's yet to be written. things come and go but yourself stays until it doesn't. I feel when my work shifted into a more personal area it may have been difficult for people to go there, but I  can't control that, so I'm just staying on course and waiting. I'm committed.

The works in these photos that Brian Ferry captured, are they part of an upcoming show? If so, where and when?

Yes they are. They are for a show I am making in Berlin at Lüttgenmeijer. It opens February 23rd. I believe the title of the show will be "Repeat the Sounding"

Do you ever lose "faith" in your art?  And if so, what else have you considered dedicating your time to? What role does your personal relationship have in your work?

I vacillate between super confidence and extreme fear and insecurity. I carry a lot of fear. But I work towards excepting that it's part of my personality and I practice hard to identify that fear and except it, it kind of takes its power away, like they do to Freddy Krueger when they realize they are just dreaming. Often when I am criticized I feel it in my stomach. I know then it's true and I am able to recover and learn, but the foundation from which my creativity is sprung is unstable at best. Confident and bold enough to be born but insecure and paranoid because it sticks it's neck out so far. Being humbled is helpful for this.

The moment you realize you aren't anyone the rest is just perspective. If I were to lose complete faith and start in a different discipline I think I would like to have been someone like Alan Lomax, an ethnomusicologist. Documentary film making maybe.   Regarding my relationship with Bengü, she is my muse, my light, and through her everything is illuminated, creatively, spiritually, and intimately. I can't even put it into words.

Masks. Pretending. Believing. What do you believe that others have yet to believe?

I have said pretending a lot and I think it deserves some clarification. When I say pretend I think I mean a kind of practicing. Transmutating, self discovery, magic I don't believe come into being by some sort of finger snapping. they come into being by inumerous practice. They fail more than they succeed. The mask or pretending's prop might be an extra push to get over the threshold or a delving into darkness and making it conscious. As far as what others have yet to believe? Your question is much prettier than my answer will ever be. Though they can't control what happens, people can control their reaction to it, that is something worth believing in.

Did humor have a role in your earlier work, and has the humor left your work? If so, then why?
Its good to not take yourself too seriously, and I don't mostly, so I don't think humor has drained from what I do, but I think humor sometimes works on a duality that I have shifted more towards a unity. I feel I have a child's wonder about the world and my enthusiasm is unwavering, so I feel flexible and molten, not brittle and bitter, humorless.


thank you to Brian Ferry for photographing Matthew Ronay's studio.