RING AROUND THE ROSIE
An Interview with Mark Ryden by Attaboy and Annie Owens
A Mark Ryden oil painting transforms the reality around us. Icons you've seen time and time again become kitch and kitch objects become effigies. Long forgotten toys burst to life at their seams and suckle from the milk fountain teats of cherubic pale face nymphs. Ryden oil paints with the execution of the old masters, creating modern masterpieces. Since his first exhibition in the 90's, Ryden has influenced an entire generation of known and aspiring artists. His recent museum retrospective Wondertoonel has shown the art world that his work is undeniable to even the loftiest of snoot nosed theorists and curatorial turtlenecks. Ryden's images are accessible but deep, modern and timeless. We sat down with Mark at his new studio for an evening of fine dining to discuss his art, family, and even Michael Jackson.
Atta: Hello, Mark! Thanks for having us over to your studio for chicken and waffles. Where did you order them? They seem to be a southern Californian specialty. I've never had syrup-coated chicken before, but now I'm hooked. We really like your new digs. Your last studio, high a top a castle in Pasadena, was great, but this place is much more welcoming, and now Porterhouse (your print and publishing house) is right out back.
Atta: What's with the big jar of hair?
I am not going to discuss that.
Atta: Okay, let's get the wordy art-speak out of the way first. Luck, superstition, fairy tales, religion, history, science, and pop culture icons, all overlap to create where we “are”, Whether these things are fact or human invention, These things frame (or distort!) our reality with a set of rules, where we came from, what we believe in, or fight against. (Did I just say that?). These themes appear in your paintings.
Are mythical figures like Santa Claus, the KFC Colonel, Abraham Lincoln, and Michael Jackson part of the modern echelon of roman-like deities we use to guide us through life?
I like this question very much. You are sensitive to something not too many people get. Those Roman like deities are swarming all around us. They are what make life. I am no monotheist. The gods take many forms.
Atta: Your work is also intertwined with alchemy and numerology. There are symbols and strange letters in many of your paintings. Do these arcane practices affect your day -to- day life? Do they determine the flight numbers you pick, for example, or the specific days you do important things? Are you compulsively adding numbers and turning letters into numbers like in the movie about that crazed mathematician?
I love numbers. If I hadn't pursued art my next choice would have been math or science. Unfortunately, the adage if you don't use it you lose it applies. I am not where I was in college, but I still love numbers, math, and numerology, and it ends up in my art. Every number has a connotation and a specific energy to it. I keep lists of things that come in each number - 3 graces, 4 elements, 5 senses, 12 apostles, etc. Each number has a life of it's own.
Annie: I read that you feel compelled to paint certain things out of instinct and you don't question that instinct. Do you find that people interpret narratives into your work or find symbolic meaning in the objects in the paintings that aren't necessarily there?
There are many symbolic meanings in my art that I myself am not necessarily conscious of. The most powerful meanings in art come from another source outside an artist's own literal consciousness. To me, tapping into this world is the key to the making the most interesting art. Some people find my refusal to explain everything in my work deeply dissatisfying. They can't stand mystery. They need to literalize it all and tie it up in a neat little package.
Atta: You poke fun of religion, replacing the stars of the Bible with Barbie and the KFC Colonel. Do you get harassed by orthodox religious stalwarts who lack a sense of humor?
I am really not poking fun at religion. I am just looking at it in different ways. Someone ought to poke fun at those Christians, though. They are the ones responsible for putting that evil clown in the white house.
Annie: Rosie's Teaparty, which is also this volume's cover image, is a painting of your daughter. What motivated you to do that painting? Was it just for fun? Do your children have an opinion of your art or art in general? Do they ever ask about the subject matter in the art they might see around them and do you ever find yourself at awkward moments when needing to explain a certain image (not necessarily your own)? I would be interested to know how you present that to them being that your art is so highly imaginative and sometimes contextually challenging for the more conservative.
I photographed my daughter Rosie for the Tea Party painting several years ago. It was the first time she ever modeled for me. She took to it with unbelievable skill even at the age of three. Now she is almost eight and she still loves to pose for me. I usually have a sketch that she imitates. She instinctively understands the expression and gesture needed for a pose. I use her as a model even when the figure is not going to be a likeness of her. The girl in Rosie's Tea Party is an actual portrait of her. It is fun to have her face in the painting but it is more difficult and very different creatively than the faces I invent. Rosie enjoys being in my art. She and Jasper (my son) seem to understand my art better than many adults. They respond to it instinctively and they don't over intellectualize it. Unlike adults they don't get stuck, they just experience it. Children in general respond well to my art. I feel I have been successful when a child is captivated by one of my paintings.
Atta: The Creatrix was a huge undertaking, a gigantic painting that premiered at your touring museum show Wondertoonel. The painting encompasses so much. It's like a tour of the pre-school days of human existence, the spawn of time and evolution all intertwined into the dress of a young woman. What are the origins of this masterpiece? Is it a response to “creationism?”
The Creatrix is not about Creationism in the simple-minded Christian sense, but it is about the sublime mystery of life on earth. The painting was inspired by a visit to the Natural History Museum in New York. There is a room there called the Hall of Biodiversity. On a single wall the huge range of life forms on earth is displayed. In the painting, I wanted to capture the monumental feelings and thoughts this exhibition inspires in me.
Annie: Does chaos bother you? Like when your socks don't match?
My whole life seems like chaos. I just bump around traveling through it. I attempt to create some order and regularity but chaos always wins.
Atta: Earlier in your career you did a commission for Michael Jackson, the pope of pop. I heard from an inside source that he left some very strange answering machine messages for you concerning that painting.
Oh, the stories I could tell you. Unfortunately I cannot “officially” discuss the details, but I can tell you that I feel very fortunate to have met and worked with and a person of such relevance in our time. Michael Jackson is a true weirdo. I think that makes small-minded people assume that he is also a pervert. Maybe I am wrong, but I would guess that he is the victim of opportunistic parasites. Children in Europe drink Jesus Juice from a very young age and let's face it, the Europeans are much more civilized than Americans.
Atta: I'm sure you're tired of people asking about the meaty themes in your work. But, you mentioned in the Blood Book that meat and blood are the main ingredients for human life. What about the soul and all that lofty-spirity type stuff?
Well, that is the whole point. Meat is a physical substance that can be alive or just an inanimate substance. Meat is the matter that holds our spirit in this plane of existence.
Atta: During the LA riots, your father was tragically shot by an unknown assailant and blinded. He now lives with your brother Steven in a house filled with images and paintings from yourself and your older brother, the artist KRK Ryden. After the incident, your work and career took a monumental leap forward, and to me, this is intensely heartbreaking, that your dad can't see the wonderful and complex paintings that his sons have created.
It is heartbreaking. He has missed out seeing so much. My mother also missed out on so much. She died of cancer 10 years ago. She missed out on her grandchildren. Life can be incredibly painful. Sometimes it seems life is too full of pain but through this pain it is so true that we can more deeply feel joy and happiness. My dad has a pretty good life. My brother Steven takes such loving care of him. He enjoys following what's going on all around him even though he does not get to see it. He has an incredibly positive attitude as he faces each day in darkness.
Atta: Do you ever describe the paintings to him?
Steven is the one who does a marvelous job of describing so many things to him.
Atta: KRK mentioned that you had an early fascination to King Tut, and that paintings you did in high school of Tut started the whole ball rolling, cementing your interest in painting.
I would say KRK started the whole ball rolling as he exposed me to art at a very young age. Egyptian imagery was one of the first of many things I have been obsessively drawn to. In high school I did a large painting of King Tut's sarcophagus. There is a goofy picture of me painting it in my high school yearbook. From there I eventually moved on to magicians, fish, Christ, meat, Lincoln, bees, and now _____(Oops I can't reveal that yet)
Atta: Was KRK a big influence on you?
KRK is one of the most interesting people I know, and luckily for me he happens to be my brother. His imagination is inspiring. He knows about so many weird little things. I know I am a more successful with my career but that is because I am a better business man. KRK is a true bohemian artist.
Annie: Who are some of the current artists you admire?
Marion Peck, Loretta Lux, Ana Bagayan, Julie Heffernan, and John Currin.
Annie: How did you and the painter Marion Peck meet? Do you see influence of each other in your work? Do you think artistic influence is unavoidable when two artists share their lives? Have you ever created a piece together?
There is a really funny line from the movie “a Mighty Wind.” Amber Cole's character says in an awkward accent - “It's like we share the same brain” referring to her partner. We laugh but that is how it is like with Marion and me. I have had some amazing blessings in my life but the most fortunate thing ever to happen to me is meeting my one true love. I finally understand the meaning of that corny word “Soulmate”. We met by a big mossy ball at the Frye Museum in Seattle at a show of Gabriel Baker. Marion was a fan of my work and wanted to meet me. The magic of destiny took off at the moment we met. There is nothing better than making art side by side with someone who shares the same inspirations. We have only made one actual painting together (“The Star” 2004) but in a way everything we do is a collaboration.
Annie: In the designer/art toy world there is a pronounced absence of a Mark Ryden figure. Correct me if I am wrong but I must assume you've had the opportunity. Could you talk candidly about what you think of the designer/artist toy movement? Do you have any future plans for a sculpted representation of your work?
I love toys. I have rooms and rooms full of them. They are a big component of my art. It is easy to look at my paintings and see the toy possibilities. I have resisted making toys because if I make them I don't want to just dabble in it. I would want to immerse myself in it. I would want to make amazing toys. I know I would get sucked in deep once I start so I resist. Jasper, my son, loves the current art toys and he really wants me to do one. It is hard to say no to my son. I'm not saying I am going to do one; it's just hard to say no to Jasper.