What is it that makes Mark Ryden's paintings so engaging? At the crux of his paintings is the surrealist strategy of combining unrelated images to create scenes that could never exist in reality. Dali always claimed that his selection of subject matter was completely random and involved no conscious thought whatsoever. In 1924, when André Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, the notion of fusing the rationally unrelated was so fresh that the combination of almost any imagery or objects was provocative. Man Ray produced a startlingly enchanting object by simply putting a row of tacks on the underside of an antique iron. But as the decades have passed Dali's brand of pure surrealism has lost much of its potency. Perhaps it is because reality has become increasingly surreal, but the near ecclesiastical gravity with which the surrealists approached their work in pre-WWII Europe doesn't play the same today. In contemporary culture pure surrealism's most common, and effective, use is as a strategy to achieve humor in movies.
Ryden has trumped the initial surrealist strategies by consciously choosing subject matter for his paintings that are loaded with cultural connotation. He relies on the irrational to help him achieve intuitive leaps in his combining of subject matter: with dazzling results. The sheer amount of layered information in each painting also contributes substantially to the impact of his work. But the crowning factor with Ryden is that he is an artist in touch with his time. The overall look and feel of his paintings and the stuff he finds interesting strikes a resounding cord with contemporary everyman.
Firmly in the foundation of the look and feel of his paintings is the color pink. It is a sweet soft feminine color, it is the baby girl's counterpart to the baby boy's powder blue (another color Ryden likes to use), and it is half of the 1950s hipster combination pink-and-black. Things don't get much better than they do when you're "in the pink," it is also the color of flesh and meat, and pink is a very popular color for bunnies. Bunnies and bees are curious things. The stuffed variety of bunnies Ryden has a penchant for are generally more soothing than a cup of hot chocolate and provide almost as much security as mommy. Yet there can be something sinister about bunnies. Those frozen facial expressions can be haunting. The anatomy of bees is remarkable as evidenced by the idiom, "bees knees." Bees unquestioningly buzz around doing the bidding of a queen. And somehow they make honey.
In the midst of all this pink and bunnies and bees, Abraham Lincoln keeps popping up in Ryden's paintings. Honest Abe was a self-taught man born in the backwoods of Kentucky. Always a champion for the common folk he was a rail-splitter turned flatboatman-storekeeper-postmaster-surveyor-prairie lawyer cum on-again-off-again politician who became president with less than 40% of the national vote. He led America through its most trying ordeal, the Civil War, and emancipated the slaves. And then on Good Friday in 1865 the actor John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head in the third act of the comedy Our American Cousin at the Ford Theater. He is more icon than human: the pure stuff of legend and enduring fascination.
In the Inspirations section in the back of his book Amina Mundi, Ryden placed Lincoln's photograph aside a headshot photo of a Colonel Sanders statue. Colonel Sanders, born Harland Sanders, opened his original Sanders' Cafe in the rear of a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, in 1929 on his way to becoming the living trademark for the international fast-food empire that is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even though he died in 1980 he seems as much alive today as he ever did. Like Lincoln, he too is more icon than human.
While Ryden is interested in the two men's fame, he is also interested in their aura and super human status and the circumstances and mechanisms by which it all works. Ryden is fascinated with systems and structures. He confesses that if he weren't an artist he might have been a mathematician or an engineer. Be it fame, quantum mechanics, the Freemason's concept of the interaction of mind and matter, or the Kabala, he muses at structures and symbols and how they go together and what they mean. It is said that although Picasso loved books he never read a book cover to cover. He would just read parts here and there and fill in the blanks intuitively. Ryden, who also has a passion for books, approaches ideas similarly. He may use a detail here and there, the reference in Puella Amino Aureo to gold as the 79th atomic structure in the elemental table for example, but he is more interested in the overall structure and the way the details fit together. He is convinced that there is a cosmology that explains everything and that this explanation has been constant throughout the ages and has been codified in every age. References to the scared and the spiritual abound in his paintings. In our skeptical culture it is not fashionable to believe in anything today. Ryden avoids being dogmatic by suggesting that there are threads of truth found in a wide variety of sources. With cross-referencing and innovative combining of these sources he gives us a fresh spin to old news. Yet his suggestion that there are concrete answers to complex questions hints at old-world sensibilities.
In his book Amina Mundi there is a sepia-tinted black-and-white photograph of Ryden dressed in a suit holding a paintbrush and palette in his hand; he looks like a 19th century gentleman artist. His relationship to the 19th century is not as fanatical as McDermott and McGough, the two contemporary performance artists who have gone so far as to live every aspect of their lives as if they are in a time-warp shunning electricity, plumbing and other modern conveniences, but Ryden has roots in the 19th century.
Perhaps, his most notable characteristic suggestive of the past century is his attention to detail. It took him nearly two years to complete the eight paintings in this exhibition. Taking time to work on things is a luxury few people indulge in our fast paced culture. In the art world craftsmanship has been unfashionable for most of the twentieth century. This erosion of belief in traditional craftsmanship began with the impressionists rejection of academic canons of beauty and painterly practice and was finalized when the Dadaists concluded that after the atrocities that were WWI all Western civilization values had to be summarily rejected on principle. Ryden boldly embraces an old European regard for craftsmanship in both his paintings and the frames for his art. He sometimes uses 19th century style or older antique frames; he even traveled to Thailand to have frames he designed carved by hand. Originally trained as an illustrator, Ryden learned to paint in acrylic. With help from a friend he taught himself to use oil paint. His refined use of oil paint to create meticulous surfaces has been influenced by his observation of academic and classical painting. Another tie to the 19th century is Ryden's interest in Bouguereau.
In Stanford scholar Lorenz Eitner's textbook on 19th century painting, he retells the story of a group of prominent French artists having dinner at a dealer's house about 1890. The group debates who will be remembered as the greatest artist of the late 19th century. Adolphe William Bouguereau was their near unanimous conclusion. The quintessential academic artist Bouguereau was one of the most celebrated artists of his time, but today the impressionists are the most remembered artists of the late 19th century: Bouguereau has been relegated to a historical footnote.
Bouguereau is undoubtably appealing to Ryden as a once famous figure demoted in the shuffle of history. But Ryden also finds interest in Bouguereau's use of composition and his handling of flesh tones and light. One of the signatures of academic painting is the finely finished painterly detail, and, at this, Bouguereau was a master among masters.
Beyond the overt pop culture references in Ryden's work there are layers of art historical references. He mentions in this catalog his nod to Gauguin and Miro in The Magic Circus (Beth), but there are dozens of more subtle references in his work. Neo-classical painters such as David, one of Ryden's favorites, were noted for their shallow pictorial space, a device found in many of Ryden's paintings. Sophia's Mercurial Waters features a classic odalisque pose; Sophia's wanton direct gaze is a visual quote from Manet's Olympia. The flora in Jessica's Hope looks like transplants from a Henri Rousseau painting. Even Ryden's signature seems a distance cousin to Albrecht Dürer's stylized signature.
Another connection Ryden has with other artists is his interest in meat. It was a popular subject matter for 16th and 17th century Dutch and Spanish still life painters. Van Gogh depicted it in some of his paintings. In Un Chien Andalou, Dali and Buñuel's classic surrealist film, a man strains to tug a rope into the camera frame as the camera pans to reveal a piano, two wide-eyed priests, and two cow carcasses attached to the rope being dragged into the scene. Young British artist Damien Hirst shocked audiences with various uses of actual livestock, including a nasty sculptural installation with a real cow carcass and flies encased in thick sheet plastic.
Francis Bacon and others have painted images of cow carcasses. But the early 20th century painter Chaim Soutine's obsession with meat may be the most radical. Soutine, inspired by Goya and Rembrandt's depiction of meat, hung freshly slaughtered carcasses in his studio, much to the chagrin of his neighbors, and splashed the flesh with blood to keep it moist while he painted it - when I visited Ryden's studio I only saw plastic replicas of meat.
Ryden isn't critical of the consumption of meat; he likes to eat meat. He is intrigued by the way meat looks, its significance in the scheme of life, and by the disconnection between the consumption of meat and the reality of its preparation: the act of eating that tasty McDonald's burger occurs light years from the moment the Jersey heifer ambled into the slaughterhouse and felt the electric jolt of a stun gun to the brain. Like many things in Ryden's paintings, all this information is unstated, it just exists somewhere in the background like strange music piped into an elevator.
You're never quite sure just where that strange music is coming from with Ryden, and time references are more than a little blurry too. But clearly there is no future in the magical worlds he paints. Circa 1930s and 40s toy robots and astronauts such as Princess Sputnik are the sum total of his references to the future. Nostalgia has a great appeal today; the certainty of the past is comforting. And Ryden's reveling with the past is one of the keystones of his oeuvre.
He was born in 1963, the year President Kennedy was assassinated and America lost its innocence. Although his paintings defy exact time frames they are thick with allusions to a post-WWII era when the American dream was pregnant with promise: an era any child who came of age in the stark reality of the 70s and 80s would find ripe for veneration.
And for Ryden the past is a huge field begging to be plucked. Nostalgia's greatest pitfall is sloppy sentimentality; Ryden's antidote for this is edgy subject matter and over-the-top juxtaposition of esoteric references. His figure might have big Keane-like eyes and be wearing pink but there's a swastika on the little boy's armband, and next to the tiny pink skull in the background a snake is approaching, and that little girl being pulled by a bunny has a whip in her hand. Perhaps his most comforting alignment with the past is his arcing back to childhood via his rendering of toys and figures in an old-fashioned children's book illustration style. And holding it all together is a distinct sense of play. It is obvious Ryden is having fun.
In his 1928 essay Le Surréalisme et le peinture, André Breton writes, "One day, perhaps, we will see the toys of our whole life, like those of childhood, once more." The surrealists marveled at the child's mind and so does Ryden: "Children are miraculous," he writes.
In that same essay Breton wrote, "The marvels of the earth a hundred feet high, the marvels of the sea a hundred feet deep, have for their witness only the wild eye that when in need of colors refers simply to the rainbow." Ryden, who as a child would draw figures with a third eye, understands Breton's notion of "the wild eye." Ryden has a "Magic Monkey" that comes to him in the middle of the night and helps him open that eye. And what he sees is a vision uninhibited by the restraints and inhibitions of adulthood. He experiences the freedom to truly see the "rainbow."