Artist Mark Ryden is a star. He is approached for his autograph often, he has his dedicated groupies, the Rydenites, and galleries have to hire security for his openings to handle the heavy flow of traffic through their doors. And, oh yes, Ryden does rub shoulders with the rich and famous. Many bigwig art trustees are among his collectors, as well as many Hollywood and music personalities. Of course the real testament to his popularity (and success, depending on how you measure it) is the fact that his shows sell out, with some people paying upward of six figures for a piece of his bizarre reality.
But the humble Southern California-based painter leaves that world behind when he enters the studio, his fantasyland. There, Ryden creates work that is as haunting as it is whimsical. From depicting children at play with strange and wonderful creatures to a somber honest Abe in various states of absurdity (meat, anyone?), his work puts some viewers on edge, while others are captivated by Ryden's odd, yet telling juxtapositions.
Helio Mag's Teena Apeles gets the lowdown on the artist's magical world on and off the canvas, and why Los Angeles still makes him tick.
How do you feel about being an artist whose art openings sometimes call for galleries to hire extra muscle at the door in order to control the crowds? A painter whose shows break museum attendance records?
It is very strange. I don't think about it on a day-to-day basis because it does not feel real. If I do think about it, I have trouble settling down and making my art. So it is best not to think about it. During an exhibition opening it becomes very real. It is deeply rewarding and satisfying to see that so many people connect to my work. But it is a bit overwhelming while it is happening.
Could you have imagined that your career would have reached this point where "selling out" (not in the negative sense, but the literal sense) shows was a usual occurrence?
I honestly never imagined the life I have. It's wonderful. Life really is but a dream. I really believe this reality we are all experiencing is a type of lucid dream, and I am very pleased with how mine is going!
How has this impacted your work or, rather, if this is the reality you're living in now, and you still are very young, what kind of future are you hoping for in terms of artistic goals?
When I go into my studio I have to let my thoughts of the outside world fade away or they can have a very negative impact on my work. I feel like this is one of the most important parts of making art. Those thoughts and voices of the outside world are what block creativity and imagination. You have to tune all of that out and awaken your inner world. As for the future, I have more ideas than I would ever be able to accomplish in this lifetime. I just hope to realize as many as I can.
Recent press has covered your transition from the "lowbrow" world to the not-so-underground art world. Was this a natural development as your popularity grew, or was this a conscious move on your part to reach a different audience?
I don't feel like I have consciously planned or tried to steer my life in any particular direction. Opportunities will come along and I gravitate toward certain things. I used to be really hard on myself for not setting goals and controlling my destiny, until I learned that's just not how life works. Life is like a river. You have to go with the flow and see where the river takes you.
From meat to bunnies to blood to trees, what is the next theme fans can look forward to?
I do love a theme, it is true, and I do have a new one in mind. I wouldn't want to give anything away, though. That would spoil the fun.
Are there any unique rituals you do while you work?
As I was saying, it is so important to stop thinking about the outside world, so when I begin to work I try to quiet my mind and inspire all of my senses. I will often light incense. I have a huge collection of things to look at that inspire me: books, toys, junk from the swap meet. I put on good music. I love many types of music, but for making art I like something more transcendental, like Eno's ambient music or classical harp.
Do you do all your paintings in your Sierra Madre studio? If not, what other places inspire you?
My studio is in Eagle Rock now. I don't paint anywhere else, but to find inspiration I love to go to all types of museums. Some of my favorites are The Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, The Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, The La Brea Tar Pits, and The Norton Simon. The other place I go for inspiration is the flea market. One of the biggest in the country is right in my backyard, the Rose Bowl.
What is it about Southern California/Los Angeles that keeps you here?
Los Angeles is an exciting place where anything can happen. People are more open to new things here than other places. There is not such an old-guard mentality. We are more free here.