Lisa Radon interviews Morgan Ritter '11 about her exhibition, Understanding Witches Now, as part of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's End Things.
“I feel like the world is being threatened by flatness,” says Morgan Ritter ’11 (Intermedia). “I had a dream that there are two ways of thinking. One, via the internet, is flat flat flat. Flat and associative. I don’t want that to be the way we think. The other way of thinking is when you walk into a room surrounded by your objects. You are informed by objects that are being informed by you.”
We are sitting on the glossy peach-colored floor of a peach-colored room at Washington High School where Ritter’s installation, Understanding Witches Now, is part of the exhibition, End Things. End Things, curated by Kristan Kennedy is the visual art component of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival. Ritter received her BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in 2011 when her thesis was given the Best in Show award, and she also received the Intermedia Department Award. Since then, her work has been exhibited as part of Shelf Life at the Henry Art Museum in Seattle and Keep Portland Weird at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
“I have a lot of secrets in this show,” Ritter says. “This is all pointing at what I am saying.”
In the room with us are haphazardly constructed ceramic objects—a hand, an apple, an oversized fork and key—most resting on beanbag chairs that she calls, “defiant pedestals” (one is a 6’ x 8’ painting of a face that she cut up and turned inside out). Most notably, one of these ceramic objects is a prone cat with white eyes spewing a white opaque liquid into a small pool. There are several videos on the walls. In one a white cat gazes out from the frame, seemingly looking around the room. Another shows a white liquid fountain, a rectangle with a ceramic hand situated vertically in the center…the liquid flows from its middle finger. One window is open and a tree reaches its leafy branches into the room. There is a wall text that is rather like a mini essay that both explicates and obscures some of Ritter’s ideas.
I want to tell you that when you read of Ritter’s ideas about defiant objects, about her self-reported stubbornness, and this middle finger in the fountain, you will think her a very different kind of person than she is. She will sound tough and off-putting when she is anything but. Rather, the woman with whom I sit on the floor is gentle if energetic, sensitive, and rather magnetic. She’s intellectually sharp and highly intuitive. Perhaps it’s just this combination of a way of being with a mode of thinking about making that makes her work compelling. Of her recent book, The Thoughtful Digestion of Unique Objects, Complex Subjects & Composited Projects, Ritter has said that it is “annotations of a poetic lifestyle,” and the “ground of my practice.” When Ritter uses the word “defiant,” I take her to mean resisting expectations, resisting givens, resisting simplistic digestion or interpretation.
The sculptures around us are what she calls,“spontaneous moments caught in solid form.” But they are objects with a collective purpose. Why these objects? Why a cat and an apple? She points out that “they are examples of regular forms. I feel I have to speak a language people can understand, cite recognizable forms to have an ecstatic collage.
“The cat is an example of a transcendent object, one in which there is a confusion of subject and object. I feel empathy toward objects because I am objectified. I wanted to make defiant objects that resist superficial understanding so as to resist generally a superficial understanding of the world and passive ways of understanding.” She reiterates that we are increasingly, “relying on the internet to be total log of all energy of life, but it is full of flattened objects.”
For an artist who has written at length about her work (as the mini-essay in vinyl lettering on wall and window in this room demonstrates), Ritter distrusts text. She feared, when she entered college, that reading theory would demystify her whole world. “I was aggressively playful,” she says. But over time, Ritter has come to regard PNCA’s doyenne of continental theory, Anne-Marie Oliver, as a godmother. “There is always a conversation between my mystical side and my legible side. I would like these things to be a perfect negotiation so that intellectuals are puzzled, so that mystics are reframed. I want to challenge parameters.” Ritter says, “I’ve always tried to trip up the system. I have had a hard time with authorities in past. I’m stubborn. I know I love to snake through complexities; it’s important to be really aggressive.”
Recall that we are sitting in a peach-colored room with cats and other objects made of ceramics perched precariously on soft, squishy beanbag chairs. There is a gentle fountain filled with what looks like it wants to be milk.
And yet she says of this installation, “I want it to be extremely defiant, with this power that modest forms or scales have.” She points out that Mira Schor wrote that modest forms are much more rigorous than monumental forms.
Of her wall text, she says, “I’m not going to be satisfied if people walk in and just enjoy the objects. It doesn’t stop there. I want to keep pushing. I think about how objects move in someone’s mind. These confused transcendent forms plus the text of the wall essay superimposing ideas on them. The essay is not completely literal. I don’t want text to be a literal survey.”
“I like the idea of cloud language,” she says. “Something amorphous that helps us digest amorphous things. I think it’s good that I don’t know.”
She enacts the flattening and resisting flattening in her process, digging the clay for these sculptures out of the Oregon countryside. “To dig clay is to pull something flattened out of the ground, something wet, amorphous, that you make concrete, and it becomes, in the exhibition, amorphous again.” Like the clay sculptures, Ritter notes, “The video too is excavating life. These are ambient, not narrative videos. Regular life is not narrative.”
Finally, of Understanding Witches Now, Ritter says, “This is a full articulation, a little more anxious, really asking how can we experience charged forms if the flattening is accelerated? I feel good about this [installation] as concretization of those ideas. I wonder how the conversation will change.”