Rocco Ritchie lives a fair, gilt sort of life in which things happen in a slidey, sidewinding sort of way. He doesn’t seem to have a problem getting this or that model to take his arm en route into, or out of, various nightclubs. Not unexpectedly, young Master Ritchie is a bit of a budding clothes horse and a practicing fashionista, swinging adroitly over the territory between early-Beastie-Boys/skateboard punk and a sort of cleaned-up, post-modern Charles Dickens’ Fagin — if Fagin had had any funds to back him up and could have been persuaded to slip into a pair of Glen-plaid stovepipes and spectator brogues topped off with an insouciant newsboy cocked back, as pictured above.
For prep, Mr. Ritchie attended New York’s Lycee Francais, where presumably a shard of the lingo rubbed off, lending him some polish. In short, he’s a blade-about-town in London and elsewhere, or at least, he will shortly be that in a full-fledged way after a few more years of dating and partying. In 2019, he entered London’s go-to art school, Central St. Martins. For all those strivings, the younger Mr. Ritchie has not yet really managed to drill down deep on what it is he wants to do. He’s not yet attained his majority; he’ll be twenty-one in August.
This is all fine and as it should be; not everybody can be Mozart, composing at six. But, unlike young Rocco Ritchie, Mozart didn’t have the New York Post’s inimitable Page Six dogging his heels back in Vienna in 1787.
Since Page Six outed the young chap on December 17 as the artist working under the nom-de-guerre “Rhed,” whose work is exhibited in London’s Tanya Baxter Contemporary gallery in the white-shoe district of Chelsea, the swift and voluminous press, and with it, the merciless invective that the younger Mr. Ritchie has garnered has been remarkable.
According to the splashy little item, young Rocco has been painting under the nom-de-guerre since 2018, and, encouragingly for the young man, some of the works have even sold. And some of those works have sold for more than pocket change, five figure sums, in fact.
It’s axiomatic that gallerists of almost any stripe or level will wax loquacious about their roster — the goal is, after all, to sell the damned wares. Tanya Baxter Contemporary has been no exception to that rule in ladling out the purple prose regarding their artist “Rhed.”
Here’s a tasty morsel:
“Now based in London and attending Central Saint Martins, he has embraced a new genre of bricolage art (sic) with expressionist verve and street energy. It is no surprise that he first dabbled as a graffiti artist and his work certainly has hints of Basquiat and Banksy.”
Though redundant, “bricolage art” in the gallery’s usage is intended to mean a sort of sly post-modern cultural sampling of the sort that Banksy and other grafitists do. More to the point, the Basquiat and Banksy references are, if not outright fantasy, wholly wishful name-checks when attached to Master Ritchie on the part of the seller.
But, again, fine. Purple is nothing if not the go-to color in all gallerist prose, and Banksy in particular is, arguably, the one living artist whose political wit and acid-washed social commentary are most admired by young-turks-on-the-make such as the aspiring Ritchie, and specifically among young-turks-on-the-make in and around London. Such as Ritchie.
Not unexpectedly, since the Post item was published in New York, much pointed opprobrium has washed over the young man, the gallery, and the “art” itself. How and why the coverage ballooned is the point here.
The initial squib, published on December 17 — in other words, well before the holidays — tut-tutted and cluck-clucked away at Rocco’s good fortune as it identified him, but the undertones of this as somehow undeserved were, arguably, represented in the URL composed for the hyperlink to the article.
Here’s how the URL looked: pagesix.com/2021/12/17/madonnas-son-rocco-ritchie-selling-art-under-fake-name/
Technically, anyway, all true: 1) Rocco Ritchie is Madonna’s beloved son, 2) he definitely has been selling art, 3) and the name under which he’s been selling it is definitely not his given one. And, like actual printed headlines, URLs do generalize as they try to magnetize hits.
But like much of the coverage since the mid-December piece out of New York, the tones of this URL trend strongly negative, and that begs a couple of questions. First, Rocco Ritchie is not hawking others’ wares under an assumed name for unnamed nefarious purposes. Second, once we’re over that implication and back in the real world, doesn’t it become actually admirable of young Master Ritchie that he was trying to sell his art on his own, which is to say under a tag that very much does not belong either to his famous father or his famous mother? Why should the young fellow — however privileged and/or celebrated his parents — be automatically raked over the coals for trying to avoid coasting in on his parents’ coattails, when the reverse — criticizing him for coasting in on whatever measure of celebrity wattage — is so often the case?
These sorts of dilemmas form the Scylla and Charybdis of being a celebrity, period. But it’s arguable in Rocco Ritchie’s case that he — as an art student who clearly wants to become an artist (of some sort) — should be given a bit of time to explore his abilities, whatever those abilities may be. It can be that his abilities don’t lie in painting, or they may. At any rate since his outing via the Post, the paintings have been minutely and specifically revisited. Both as a product of someone’s hand, and as a commodity to be sold, the art presents another set of questions that the London press has been busily trying to answer, and these questions boil down to whether the work is any good.
First, background: It’s unusual for a gallery in London, specifically, in well-heeled west London, to market work from an art school student. At the same time, all gallerists, by definition, look for the next new thing in their field, and so, in their copy on him, the Tanya Baxter gallery very much played up the emerging “Central St. Martins student” biographical detail of their artist “Rhed” long before the New York Post ever laid a finger on him as young Rocco.
There was another small sign that, in retrospect, the London press thought might point toward Rocco Ritchie, and it was the appearance of both his parents in his tow at a previous 2021 Baxter opening for a joint show. Why did Madonna and the Ritchies show up in force at that tiny, otherwise unheralded opening, exactly? Bit of a mystery, that. But nobody in London made the connection that they might be there in support of young Rocco.
As for the art itself, it’s worth taking a look at arguably London’s most substantive art writer Jonathan Jones’ take on Mr. Ritchie’s output in no less a cultural bastion than the Guardian. Mr. Jones is, first, an extremely fine writer, and second, as part of that, carries a surgical tool kit of unrivaled sharpness that he uses to lay bare the sense and sensibility of contemporary art, the classic modern, Old Masters, Cycladic sculpture, curatorial practice, museum shows, art world business practices, you name it. Here are excerpts of what Jones had to say to a Guardian colleague about Master Ritchie:
“His paintings are clumsy adolescent efforts with no sign of originality or vigour. Obviously that doesn’t mean he will not become a better artist with time. Painting takes work. It therefore seems a shame that Rhed has been put into the public eye when he’s just not, at this point, a real artist…They compare him with the street artists Banksy and Basquiat but to be honest, the only street they remind me of is the King’s Road where this kind of bad art is sure to sell to posh fools.””
In other words, it’s absolutely fine that Rocco Ritchie is painting, he should have at it hammer and tong for as long as he likes. But at the moment the product is derivative and unripe, and Jones correctly fingers the blame for shoving this work out there onto the gallery. Galleries have a host of marketing reasons for taking on artists, and those reasons range high and low. One of the more complex reasons is notoriety. Jean-Michel Basqiat and Robin “Banksy” Gunningham burst out into their careers with a version of notoriety. But they weren’t in art school when they first hit the big time, they were already deep thinkers and fine draftsmen, and it had — which is Jones’ point about how much work becoming an artist takes — taken them both a lot of work to get there.
In his own way, Rocco Ritchie is notorious, but, as all filial notoriety is, it’s automatically conferred. That isn’t his fault; there are many blessings and many disadvantages that come with such a birthright, and it seems Master Ritchie’s in a long process of learning how to sift those somewhat fraught gifts. Again, it’s praiseworthy that he’s trying something on his own knuckle, as “Rhed” or whomever. Bottom line: Both his gallery and the British tabs reporting on the young artist are capitalizing madly on his filial notoriety, and they’re not likely to stop. In the coming years, Rocco Ritchie’s challenge will be to figure out how to blunt that notoriety and create the sort that comes with real, innovative work.