The Paintings of Ross Ritchie


It is difficult to assume a place into which the painter Ross Ritchie easily fits.

This is less a problem with others born during the early nineteen-forties, such as Don Binney, Philip Trusttum, Gretchen Albrecht or Geoff Thornley, who have secured firm places within the context of New Zealand painting. Unlike them, Ross Ritchie seems elusive: a painter who courts the enigmatic. Ritchie is an artist set among others whose reputations are established, yet with him it is a claim that may seem to be less firmly secured.

The manner he has adopted for exhibiting his work has contributed to this impression. Participation has almost exclusively involved exhibitions shared with two, three or five other artists, as well as inclusion in anthology-type exhibitions such as those mounted by the Auckland City Art Gallery from 1964 to 1967 and in 1971; in the Commonwealth Institute exhibition in London, 1965; and in the two group shows organized for Melbourne in 1965 and Sydney in 1966.

ROSS RITCHIE Left (Milford) July 1979
Oil on canvas, 1528 x 1655 mm.
(Auckland City Art Gallery)

The involvement, up to 1971, in such a rash of exhibitions acquired for Ritchie a reputation as one of the most lively talents to emerge during the late 'sixties. In contrast, over the decade following 1971 display of his new work was rare - barely sufficient to keep buoyant interest in his career. This arose, however, from Ritchie's own decision to be more deliberate in the work he placed on public view.

When Ritchie's work is surveyed it is easy to gain the impression of an artist who has jumped from one viewpoint to another, modifying his style in a seemingly haphazard manner. As much as this impression appears to fit the facts, at a deeper personal level it misses the core of Ross Ritchie's achievements as a painter.

Like many painters, Ross Ritchie is a highly competent craftsman who uses his command over technique, not for purposes of virtuoso display, but to control and assist the subject of a painting. The cleverness of the 'slick' painter is not allowed to come between the spectator and the subject, no matter what form of expression this may take. Subject and technique are part of the painting's total entity-not separate issues. Just the same, his natural dexterity as a painter can at times act as a shield protecting the quiet introspective core that Ritchie seeks to maintain in his work. Initially the underlying issue of artistic 'integrity barely concerned him: but within a few years it became an important factor in hisconsciousness.

ROSS RITCHIE Thought II 1964
Oil on hardboard, 1200 x 1206 mm.
(Auckland City Art Gallery)

Ross Ritchie's career as a painter began uneasily. Part-time attendance at the Wellington Technical College Art School and the Polytechnic Design School was intermittent and generally lasted only as long as he felt there was something to be gained. Life drawing classes were useful to him, and the propositions James Coe put forward could at times prove stimulating.

Eventually more useful - though at first he did not care for the work - was his employment with the New Zealand Railways' Studio as a signwriter and road poster artist from 1956 to 1964. His friendship with Jeff Macklin, an artist of similar age whose temperament complemented Ritchie's, was also important. In their spare time they painted together.

Macklin's mentors were William Scott and Patrick Heron while Ritchie's disposition inclined towards Graham Sutherland, Edvard Munch and especially Francis Bacon. Elements accumulated from these artists can be picked out in Ritchie's Thought II 1964 (Auckland City Art Gallery). This painting was shown in May 1964 at the newly opened Uptown Gallery in Auckland. Responding to the invitation of Barry Lett, Ritchie and Macklin travelled to Auckland with the exhibition. Their response to what they found and the people they met in Auckland was so great that within a month both were back in Auckland to live.

With the artistic stimulation Auckland offered came the discovery of British Pop Art. In a painting like This Day 1964, Ritchie grafted on to the figurative and landscape elements already developed in Thought II the Pop Art language of the Union Jack and poster-like Beaties' portraits. Juxtaposed with these flattened images, areas of brush-work imitative of Francis Bacon still persisted, as did other subjective overtones. Whether conscious or not, such fragments from Bacon's anguished vision mingled with Ritchie's own cynicism to reflect certain facets in his choice of imagery: images gleaned from a variety of pictorial sources.

ROSS RITCHIE This Day 1964
Enamel on board, 1820 x 2440 mm.
(Dunedin Public Art Gallery)

Possibly the most controlled exploitation of this cynical element can be found in Four Days 1964, (reproduced in Art New Zealand 14, page 14) with its reference to the assassination of President Kennedy, an event correlated with the fleshy corruption of Francis Bacon's world (Bacon is portrayed in the upper part of the picture). The shooting is implied as a preordained event through the words 'By Appointment'. That aspect of Bacon's work which Ritchie labelled 'nihilistic' had been troubling him for some time; so while Four Days assumed the function of a strong emetic needed to purge him from this negative influence, it could not dispel his continuing admiration for Bacon's painting skills.

Among the images quoted in Four Days, and painted in the Bacon manner, is Michelangelo's study for the Libyan Sibyl for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such intentional quotations from famous artists had become an established ploy in Ritchie's work and reached a pinnacle in 90th Garden 1965 (Auckland City Art Gallery). In this work not only is the foreground figure of Mireille quoted from Toulouse-Lautrec's In the Salon, Rue des Moulins 1894, but the interior setting is repeated, with Ritchie's conventional business-man replacing one of Lautrec's pair of seated women. What gives point to the painting is the simple New Zealand landscape introduced into the background as a foil to the implied opulence of the European interior: a comment on this country's cultural dichotomy.

In 1965 the British influence waned and the work of the American proto-Pop artist Larry Rivers began to have an effect: to some extent supported by the painterly style of Robert Rauschenberg and his use of collage. The impact of Rivers's paintings was most clearly seen in Origin and Tennessee Giant Pack, 1965. Paintings like these can be directed back to what Ritchie gleaned from Rivers's Dutch Masters and Cigars 1963, or paintings like French Money I, 1961, and the Parts of the Body series. The commercial element in such paintings, an element partly introduced into his own, was boosted by what Ritchie saw in the works of James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol. Despite the verve in these paintings by Ritchie, he was unable to distance himself from his sources so that the line-up of heroes in Origin (see Francis Bacon on the right) with its suggestion of Rembrandt's The Syndics failed in their impact by being visualized via Rivers.

ROSS RITCHIE 90th Garden 1965
Oil and collage on board, 1206 x 1029 mm. (Auckland City Art Gallery)

One problem Ritchie was trying to come to terms with at this period was the apparent conflict between the followers of figurative painting and the supporters of abstract art. With students at the Elam School of Art in revolt against the dominance of abstraction, the debate was a lively issue among younger Auckland artists at the time. The turmoil that was raised puzzled Ritchie: for up till then he had viewed the work of painters like Jackson Pollock or Philip Guston in much the same way as he regarded figurative painting. Without a formal art school training, he wondered if he had missed out on some essential factor that had escaped his comprehension. With this in mind, a fairly modest but highly workable painting like his March 1965 takes on added significance if one considers the visual play between the real collage of the picture moulding, the illusionary reality of the architectural image, and the severe, flat, geometric areas that enclose these images. To some extent, the whole issue was clarified when he read Alan R. Solomon's essay to Jasper Johns's Whitechapel Gallery exhibition catalogue.

As a direct painterly influence the work of Jasper johns did not have its visual effect until years later. Instead two other artists came into the orbit of Ritchie's interest. They were Fernand Léger and James Rosenquist: at first glance a strange coupling. As influences they summed up for Ritchie two techniques of painting that allowed him to rationalize the opposing forces in theory separating representation from abstraction. With Léger, it was the clarity of his forms that Ritchie found potentially useful. In a different way this also applied to Rosenquist's art. But Rosenquist seemed much closer, more understandable, with something approaching a personal affinity. Ritchie's apprenticeship with the Railways Studio matched Rosenquist's experience as an outdoor billboard painter. He recognized immediately the formalized visual language of the commercial world, but admired the way in which Rosenquist had transformed the limitations of its commercial aesthetics.

For the latter half of 1965 and into 1966 Ritchie worked slowly and concurrently on two sets of paintings. The first evolved from doodles to which the essence of Léger's style was applied. This resulted in some highly formalized paintings which avoided any obvious reference to the real world yet retained an ambiguous suggestability of real if undefinable objects.

In the second set, the familiar methods of Rosenquist were adapted, using as a basis such works as Early in the Morning 1963, and the left section of Painting for the American Negro 1962-63: but to some extent modified by what Ritchie had learnt from his 'Léger' compositions. These paintings concentrate on a single human figure set against a stark background relieved by a simple strip of rhythmic pattern. The titles for these works, Reefton, June '63 or Johnsonville, March '48, refer to personal events associated with places the painter had visited.

ROSS RITCHIE Reefton Lady I 1966
Oil, 1092 x 965 mm.
(Collection of Harnish Keith)

As Ritchie worked into 1966 on the two series each came to take on the characteristics associated with the other, in something like a merging of forces. Some of the images in the well-resolved, large Composition 1965-66, assume qualities akin to Rosenquist's spaghetti image; while Reefton Lady 1966 introduced into the figure and the images surrounding it aspects derived from the 'Léger' compositions. Structurally as well as in the formal solution of their visual qualities both paintings are related.

During the next few years, Ritchie abandoned the figurative approach to concentrate on 'designed' structures that seem to have as their source the background design to Reefton Lady I. The most accessible examples of these designs are the two multiple prints issued by 20/20 Vision and the Barry Lett Galleries: Bud 1968 and Three 1969. Although both are formally well-resolved, they are largely confined to the visual polarity of their own internal structure.

Ross Ritchie has never been a painter to accept an easy solution to the deeper implications of his work. During the latter years of the nineteen-sixties he repeatedly questioned his achievements as a painter. The introspection centred on the purpose behind his work: whether his paintings really had meaning beyond their visual appearance. What was never in question was his technical facility to create plausible paintings.

Sure enough, these too had meaning: but acquired, as it were, second-hand. For all their visual interest they were works without a core, reflecting Ross Ritchie's uncertainty as to their ultimate direction. He felt the need for greater personal involvement in the creation of his paintings. They had become events performed by himself yet occurring outside himself. In Centre Two, 1968 - its surface composed of small white squares, with four of these, towards each corner, brightly coloured - the immediate impression was visually stimulating: but such an effect lacked staying power.

In other paintings he still further purged his technique from what he saw as excesses in his search for a relevant solution.

The first paintings to hold the glimmer of conviction were the Sign Series of 1969. These consisted of narrowly-drawn figures in primary colours-such as a single numeral or a triangle-placed in the central area, while towards the edge of each canvas a single border stripe surrounded the sign. Each image was composed of a double line, sharply defined on its inner edge but fuzzed externally. It was the simplicity Ritchie adopted to both style and content, rather than any minimal austerity, that gave to this series the suggestion of a new starting point. Without the basic honesty to admit that he had been following the wrong track, the personal relaxation that initiated the Sign Series would not have occurred. Their unadorned response denied the shallow sophistication of his work as practised a year or two previously. He was moving out from under the shadow of a diIemma. 'But as a series of forward steps they were faltering: still removed trom being a natural extension of his own personality.

The advantages and the pitfalls of his new approach were severely tested in the large, stylistically akin Inch painting undertaken as part of the Auckland City Art Gallery's 'Ten Big Paintings' project for 1970 and exhibited early in 1971. In its convincing handling of scale Inch had only to contend with the mastery of Colin McCahon's and Don Driver's large paintings: but the veneer of symbolic meaning that had given to the images used in the Sign Series an independent autonomy was absent. The swirls, whirls, undulating lines and amoeba-like shapes acquired the imprint of a highly organized doodle, formed partly with the artist keeping one eye trained on the spray-painted linear patterns associated with Bernard Cohen's work.

ROSS RITCHIE Composition 1965-6
Oil and enamel on canvas, 1824 x 1608 mm. (Collection of Gordon H. Brown)

To what extent the painting of Inch represented a triumph for Ritchie, to what degree a recapitulation, is difficult to assess. The 'Big Painting' was followed by a series of pictures painted with obvious sincerity and reflecting the religious mystique of his friend Neil Dougan's designs. However the 'primitive' pattern-making of these works belonged more to his friend than to himself. A further period of cleansing was required. For four years Ritchie refrained from showing new work 

When the new works did appear on view at the Barrington Gallery in March 1975 the questions they raised were ones that had, in a different form, preoccupied Ritchie for over a decade: questions related to art, reality, and the illusionary properties of art Essentially the new works were conceptually based and reflected his response to a nurnber of events that occurred in Auckland during 1974: events such as Bruce Barber's performance of Bucket Action, Adrian Hall's exhibition and that of Some Recent American Art. Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawings in particular fascinated him; the relationship of plan to drawing, of drawing to the wall support. Small in size, Ritchie's works possessed elements of illusionary deception akin to that practised by the trompe l'oeil painters, aspects related to contemporary installation techniques, with some works given titles in keeping with the notions of Conceptual Art.

Most of the works existed in two parts. In A and C 1974, a simple geometric pattern is composed from real string and drawing pins which are attached to a wall. In exactly the same proportions this figure of string and pins is faithfully and meticulously depicted in the painting which is hung slightly below the real objects. It is the relationship between the two versions of this figure; the one painted, the other real, and the conceptual implications of these two 'realities', that is important. (The super-reality introduced into the illusionary painting of these works is epitomized by the miniature self-portrait shown reflected on the shiny surface of the drawing pin head in Cardinal 1974.)

The next painting released for public view was C.C: it was included in the Benson and Hedges Art Award exhibition for 1976. C. C. stands as an important link between the works from 1974 and those begun in 1979. The illusionary pins, string and the two grey patches attached to the splendidly painted canvas placed against a wall, is to some extent minimized by the formal organization of the composition and its larger (and less concentrated) dimensions. These latter factors became the starting point for the paintings which Ritchie began in 1979 and which were shown with the Peter Webb Galleries in September 1980.

Acrylic and string on board 210 x 210 mm.
(Peter Webb Galleries)

In many respects the new paintings recapitulated aspects used in Ritchie's paintings since the mid-'sixties. The lessons he had learnt from Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg and jasper johns were especially relevant and were easily tied into the illusionary realism of his 1974 paintings: together with their conceptual implications and the resolution of the apparent dichotomies underscoring reality and illusion (see my review of these paintings in Art New Zealand 18, p 13, for greater detail).

One significant aspect of the recent works lies in the flexibility of Ritchie's 'quotations' from other artists. The early anxiety that accompanied the rather self-conscious borrowings so apparent in his so-called Pop Art paintings of the 'sixties had now been erased. in the recent paintings there is an acknowledgement as to the limits of originality. The images included in these works are allowed to float into the paintings, as it were, from the reservoir of his own memory. The associations are those akin to a state that exists between sleeping and wakefulness. The medley of images reflect the state of Ross Ritchie's being as it is of the present 'now'; and this is accepted for what it is: seemingly complex on the surface but fundamentally simple in its vision of a total reality.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 20 Winter 1981