Winter Arts Guide | Visual Arts

No embarrassment for Riches

Mother, son create abstract, playful paper constructs

Ellen Rich began pursuing a career in art after turning 40. Matthew Rich began creating at age 7. Now the two are sharing a show. Ellen Rich began pursuing a career in art after turning 40. Matthew Rich began creating at age 7. Now the two are sharing a show. (Suzanne Kreiter / Globe Staff)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2010

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One of the best paintings that artist Ellen Rich ever saw was a scene of a snowball fight. Her son Matthew painted it when he was a boy.

That particular painting won’t be on view tomorrow, when “Riches: New Work by Ellen Rich and Matthew Rich’’ opens in the Trustman Art Gallery at Simmons College. Like his mother before him, Matthew Rich has gone abstract.

“Matthew and I shared a studio,’’ Ellen recalls as she serves up bottled water, fresh fruit, and cinnamon twist pastries to her son and a visitor in her spacious South End studio. At 69, she’s brassy and effusive, dressed all in artist’s black and sporting a short-cropped snow-white haircut. “I used to have my studio at home,’’ she explains.

“I wouldn’t say we worked side by side,’’ demurs Matthew, a slight, bearded man with glasses. “I was 7.’’

Today he’s 33, with a career in blossom.

“Matthew is rather drowning in shows!’’ Ellen delightedly observes. Recently named a finalist for the Institute of Contemporary Art’s 2010 James and Audrey Foster Prize, Matthew will be in the Foster Prize show this fall, and he has group exhibits lined up this year in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Ellen will have a solo show at the St. Botolph Club.

Matthew’s considerably smaller studio, its floor littered with shreds of painted paper, is directly beneath Ellen’s in a hive of artist workspaces on Wareham Street in the South End.

They have a warm working relationship. “If I were to apply one word,’’ says Matthew, who has a quieter demeanor than his mother, “it would be feedback.’’

You can see correspondences in their work. Both make painted paper constructions that play along the edge between flat and three-dimensional. Each has a color sense to set your retinas vibrating. Her pieces are more textured, larger, and gaudier. His are more conceptually layered.

“They share a buoyancy and a playfulness,’’ observes Michele Cohen, director of the Trustman Gallery. “They both push at the boundaries of abstraction, thinking ‘How can I use this vocabulary in a personal way?’ ’’

Matthew points to one of Ellen’s pieces, “Circling and Crossing.’’ Pink seems to rise from the interstices. “Look at the way the pink leaks from the back,’’ he marvels. “It’s creepy and infectious.’’ Matthew applies color to the backs of his pieces, too, and they can cast eerie haloes on the wall.

The two have a fond, teasing relationship. Ellen hauls another piece Matthew made as a boy out of her storage rack and points to a glittery passage at the bottom of an otherwise dour black-and-white abstraction. “That’s a Domingo Barreres rip-off,’’ she says, laughing. Barreres is a patriarch of Boston painters, and one of Ellen’s teachers.

Not everyone in the family is an artist. Ellen’s daughter Catherine is a physician, and her husband, David, is a retired attorney and a musician. Still, Matthew grew up in a house just a few blocks away that had what he calls “a dirty room’’ - the studio - where he could bring the markers and paper he’d been given for Christmas and play.

It wasn’t until after Matthew’s birth that Ellen began to take herself seriously as an artist.

“I am a late arrival,’’ Ellen admits. At 40, she went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for her master’s degree. When she started exhibiting in the 1980s, she worked in papier-mâché, then Styrofoam. “I had a big thing about recycled materials, and I didn’t want to create more garbage in the world,’’ she remembers. Looking for materials, she said, “I would dive into dumpsters.’’

Matthew smiles. “That’s my mom,’’ he says in a warmly ironic tone.

Ellen’s early sculptures were large and biomorphic, like vast primordial creatures. Today her works retain an impertinence that commands attention, but they’re calmer, more nuanced.

Matthew doesn’t dumpster dive, but he does let dust and footprints mark up the paper he uses - that same paper that lies all over his studio floor. Held together at the back by tape, his works appear unassuming.

But the more time you spend with pieces such as “Vortex,’’ which has colorful bat wings around a spinning, snail-like center, or the deflating medicine ball that is “Vessel,’’ the more you recognize their sophistication. They are flat as construction paper, yet play tricks with space. The imagery is like that of an abstract painting, yet it is built of individual pieces of painted paper. Those footprints and scuff marks add another layer. As Matthew put it in his statement for a show last year at samson, his pieces balance “intention and accident, refined and crappy.’’

Matthew’s process involves unfurling rolls of paper on the floor, painting and cutting them up, assembling them with tape, then flipping the work over to see how it looks from the back and how it might be improved.

Ellen doesn’t describe her process at all, but repeatedly invokes the word “intuitive.’’ She returns frequently to round forms that jostle and bubble up the wall.

“I like the idea of connection,’’ she reflects, eyeing her piece “Splat,’’ a fungus-like profusion that will be in the Simmons show. “These edges, where they connect and where they meet - it’s about relationships and connections for me. When a piece works, it’s because I have achieved some sense of that.’’

In contrast, Matthew is driven to draw opposites together like a magnet. He points to his chosen material, paper, as an example. “It’s humble, it might have a life expectancy, and yet I like to make something well-composed and beautiful.

“Tension,’’ he continues. “I want, in this one thing, to put two things together. It’s sublimation: a way of resolving conflict in a single body.’’

For a moment, quiet falls. Matthew looks around his mother’s space. “It’s funny to see knives from my kitchen circa 1982,’’ he quietly notes, “stirring paint in a studio.’’