"Mark Ryden - The Alchemist's Message"
By Carlo McCormick
Jan / Feb 2002
At the apex of his superhuman painting career and his love affair with slack-jawed audiences, Mark Ryden ruminates on his new body of work, acclimating to success, alchemy, and the tragic state of the nation.
MARK RYDEN HARDLY NEEDS INTRODUCTION in the pages of this magazine, from whose lurid loins his phenomenal fine art career has seemingly been spawned. Taking precious time from working on his upcoming show, Ryden talked with us about this and his relationship to the high canon of lowbrow, a position that may have been recently called into question in the same pages of this magazine. Still close in the wake of history at the time of this conversation, we of course spoke of what anyone would be talking about in those bitter days. Mark Ryden, pictorial puppet master, narrative trickster extraordinaire, here addresses the questions we all now ask ourselves, from the relevance of art in the face of terror to the myth of transcendental magic in an age of cynicism. With his latest paintings premiering here as a backdrop to these thoughts, Ryden explains his perceptual process and investment of reality in illusion as if they were metaphors for life itself.
Mark, it seems impossible after September 11 to talk of much else, but can you say what it is to make art now, to maintain your style in an age of despair?
It is pretty awful, actually. It seems pointless and trivial to be making paintings right now. I have to take care of a lot of stuff for this show, and this made it all so difficult. There is an empty feeling all the time.
Art may seem a frivolous and trivialized pursuit now, but it is ultimately there for that emptiness. It is the best alchemy we have left to transform these experiences. People have talked about a metaphysical dimension to art, how you might actually paint with magic, but you seem hesitant to elaborate much on this, as if putting it into words would dispel the magic and mystery.
That is part of it, but another part is just saying "magic" sounds so trite. Part of it is my family background. We were pretty cynical. We were very close and had a lot of humor but we were not very sentimental. So when I talk about those things they sound corny, like something to laugh at. It has taken a while to get over this cynicism. Also, I have so much trouble putting these thoughts into words. That's why I put them into the paintings. I am really fascinated by the part of life that transcends the normal and the everyday. I am interested in things that are supposed to be sacred. I have always been drawn to old alchemy charts, illustrations, mystic symbols, and imagery. I have been using them for years in my art without really knowing what they mean. The more I surrounded myself with this imagery, the more I actually learned about it. I think there is a real parallel between painting and alchemy. You take this physical substance and do something really magical with it. In painting you are working with a physical substance and bringing spiritual life to it. Alchemists were doing more than just trying to elevate base metals to gold; they were also trying to find the mystical in the physical. In painting, there is a magical thing that happens when you take these tubes of color, squeeze it out in shapeless globs, and create a whole world with it.
In many ways more fearful than the attacks have been certain gut-level responses, wrapped up in the flag, to a continuous refrain of "God Bless America," and ready for war. If art can't change what has happened, it seems it might at least pacify some of our more afflictive emotions.
I am so against war and grew up in a generation where I thought everyone else was as well. I look at all these flags and I can't help but see support of bombs and missiles. There was only one painting that I worked on after this all happened. It was well underway and it didn't change. But I am curious as to how all this might affect my imagery once I start up a new painting. I do think that maybe some people will feel they need art in their lives more. If there is a positive side to this war, it's that people are reevaluating their lives-seeing what is more important. We have lived in a unique time in history. Forty or 50 years of relative peace is unheard of. Most people around the world and throughout time have lived with what we are now experiencing. That horror and violence makes you appreciate the good stuff. It's a balance, and we didn't appreciate that good stuff until this happened. That is how I intellectualize it. But emotionally I am scared of their dumping anthrax on my house. I fear for my family. I fear for my children's future.
If it does come to bringing light to a very dark time, I am curious how you've managed to conjure such dark subjects where you live, in a lovely home in Sierra Madre in a bucolic world of white picket fences.
I suppose it's a little like Blue Velvet: On the surface, it may appear to be a beautiful, perfect world, but if you peel back the layers ... I like the contrast of the two. So much of what I do is in this juxtaposition. I think that artists fail by doing only one thing entirely or by showing only one side entirely. When a painting is only pretty and happy, like a Thomas Kinkade, it makes us sick. Conversely, all those artists so cool and hip doing work that is entirely dark and violent are losing a lot of power to their work by not including some of the other side. There can be much more power in something subtle.
That almost seems like a response to what Pizz wrote in the pages of this very magazine. Eric White told me that he described certain wussy artists in a particular way and that you, Todd Schorr, Shag, and he all took it somewhat personally. To me the sphere you all occupy is so small and marginal in relation to the contemporary art world that you should all get along and support one another. But is there a fundamental split between the sensitive art guy here and a perhaps more macho underground artist?
The funny thing was that each of us took it personally; we each thought Pizz was targeting us directly. At first, I hardly thought about how all these other artists also fit his description. I think a lot of it comes from resentment for some of the success we've had. We're not claiming to be tattoo or hot-rod guys. I've always been bewildered by how I am included in all that. Pizz is trying to defend that position, and I don't really blame him. He called me recently to ask me to write a statement for his book, and I joked with him about it. From what he told me, I think what he wrote came out much more vindictive and aggressive than how he meant it. But people have made more of it because conflict seems to be a natural part of people, just like this war going on. I just thought it was funny. I can understand his frustration with not having as much success, coming from the same world as Robert Williams, seeing us "college-educated, girlie-handed boys" come from the outside, doing something different and getting a lot of coverage in a magazine that was primarily started for the hot-rod and tattoo culture. I actually owe the start of my art career to Robert Williams. The whole reason I am a fine artist is that Robert put me on the cover of the second issue of Juxtapoz. At the time I was still really doing only commercial art. It really launched my fine-art career, which I feel was really thrust upon me by that experience.
I like what you wrote about your meat paintings, which I guess appeared in the last issue of Juxtapoz before this interview. But I guess there wouldn't be much to add to it here.
I would say that I started doing the whole meat thing without conscious thought. I would be asked about the meat more than any other thing. So only in being forced to answer over and over was I able to eventually put it into words. There are reasons for all the stuff I do, it's just that not everything is so completely preconceived beforehand.
This may be a very obnoxious New York perspective, but I've always imagined the love of illusion and theatricality in your work comes from having spent so much of your life around Los Angeles.
It comes more from alchemy and the Kabbalah - how they believed our physical world is all an illusion, that we all exist in a waking dream that is not real. I think that is a very intriguing idea. I've always been drawn to the fake. I love dioramas; they are little fake worlds within our own. I try and capture the lighting and feeling of a diorama in my paintings. It is the illusion of reality that I am attracted to. Our world we live in is really just a kind of physical illusion like the diorama. We instinctively know there are more than the three dimensions our regular five senses can experience but we cannot directly experience anything beyond this "diorama" we are living in. I love all the fake monuments in Las Vegas and the Pirate Ride at Disneyland but I've never thought of them as being tied to living in Southern California
There is something about your process that I think is quite revelatory, in that you use both magnifying glasses and reduction lenses to look at your work while you are painting it. This is very interesting to me in that you are also concerned with how science is now trying to come to some understanding between Einstein's micro view and larger cosmological, or macro, systems theory. That, too, seems to offer a metaphor for life.
I spend a vast amount of my time working on the microscopic, but stepping back and seeing the bigger picture is essential to the painting process. I alternate between working under a magnification lens and a reducing lens. We are at a very amazing time in our history. Scientists are trying to reconcile the two main theories of our physical existence, the macrocosm of Einstein's theory of relativity and the microcosm of quantum mechanics. Scientists and physicists are trying to come up with an all- encompassing theory of everything, the Grand Unified Theory. Quantum theory states an uncertainty that seems to go against Einstein and Newton. On a very basic level, it says that our five senses cannot tell with absolute certainty the motion of things in our universe. The thing that is interesting is how metaphysical ideas seem to be a necessary part of a Grand Unified Theory. So painting can closely parallel life on a grander scale. And that's what it is to paint you can become a God of your own world.