BLOOD: Miniature Paintings of Sorrow and Fear
By Chuck Amok - Sept / Oct 2003
Mark Ryden has recently moved his infamous studio to the top of the famous, allegedly haunted, Castle Green hotel in Pasadena, California. I couldn’t wait to meet the mysterious Mr. Ryden; king of the current pop narrative movement the "Art World" can’t shake. I had so many questions I couldn’t wait to ask him, questions like, what is the significance of the fact that Abraham Lincoln and Christina Ricci were both born on February 12th?
It was a particularly hot day when I visited his studio at the historic landmark. Castle Green was built in 1899 and originally served as a popular resort hotel for upper crusties of another era. I approached the iron gates of the vast Victorian mansion and pushed the buzzer. As I waited for a reply, I happened to look up to the uppermost balcony. There I saw a mysterious figure, dressed all in black. It has been rumored that Mr. Ryden only wears black and indeed, only eats black food. The gates opened themselves and I walked through the garden, heavy with the lush scent of shaven lawn. The castle stood imposingly before me. It seemed strange that such a large building could be so silent. I walked up the veranda stairs, and into the cool, dark, elegant lobby. A pale, morose elevator man, who seemed more like an undertaker, greeted me there.
"I am here to see Mr. Ryden," I said.
"Yes, follow me", he answered, in a monotone.
I wondered if I was I awake or in some kind of haunted 50’s B movie as he escorted me into his iron cage elevator. While we ascended I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I was surprised by my own exaggerated anticipation. It was a long silent ride to the top of the building, and the undertaker did not make eye contact.
Then, as so few people are ever given the chance to, I entered the studio of Mark Ryden. There was almost too much to take in. It was a beautiful space, somewhere between the New York Museum of Natural History and the Vatican, with a little of Pee Wee’s Playhouse thrown in. To my left a huge wooden chinese lion growled at me. To my right a wee Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by plastic angels, held out his hand. Mr. Ryden was at a table; his back turned to me. On the table were numerous bottles of unknown substances and strange apparatuses. There was a peculiar odor in the air and I could hear a bubbling sound. I was very curious about what he was doing, but suddenly my attention was pulled to the other side of the room. There I saw with my own eyes the famous Magic Monkey. He stood on his pedestal, majestic and at the same time utterly freaky. I couldn’t believe I was really there.
Composing myself, I cleared my throat. Mr. Ryden turned. He was indeed dressed in black, wearing a long priest-like coat. The thing I could make no sense of and will haunt me to my dying day was the clown mask he was wearing. He removed it as if this was a normal thing to do. "Hello" he said to me, in a kind voice, and our interview began.
"Why blood?" I asked him.
"Sometimes life can be very dark. I’ve been going through a very difficult time," he replied. "Last year, after 14 years of marriage, my wife asked me for a divorce. Anybody who has been through a divorce knows how horrible it can be. With in a year’s time I lost some of the most important things in my life. I lost the financial security I had worked for years to achieve. I lost a beautiful home I worked so hard to own. But, of course, worst of all, I lost my family. I am allowed to be with my children on Tuesdays and every other weekend, but that is quite different from the relationship we had when I was with them everyday. It is brutal to have your dreams shattered. The hopes you have for your life and family get torn apart and it causes a pain very deep inside. I found it curious that there was no blood with my trauma. It seemed like with so much pain I should be covered in blood. I wanted to be able to see my wounds, but they were not on the surface of my flesh."
I was taken aback by his candid response.
"I did not want to hide why I did these paintings," he said. "I know it might seem like a very personal thing to share with the world. I suppose most people are surprised, but I think the world would be a better place if more people didn’t hide their pain. We all have pain. It is comforting to know we are not alone in it. That’s why I had the Blood Show open in Los Angles on my wedding anniversary,"
"Not only was the opening on your anniversary but on that very night Mr. Bush started his own "Blood" show. He began dropping bombs on Iraq within minutes of the start of your opening. Was this an eerie coincidence?"
"Yes, very eerie and very sad. As much as it should not have surprised me I could not believe Bush actually went and did it. He is making this world into a very frightening place."
"Do you see the world as filled with only ‘Sorrow and Fear’?"
"There is a very dark and painful side to life, but that is natural. People in our culture think they shouldn’t ever be unhappy. They think being unhappy is unnatural. They try and make it go away. They take pills or they go to therapy to "fix" themselves. They blame themselves or others for their suffering. We need to understand that sadness is as much a part of this life as joy. It would be easy to just get bitter and cold while focusing on the dark side, but there is also an amazing, wonderful side of life. If you look for it, there is true magic all around us. Maybe that sounds trite to the hardened self-protective modern ego, but there is magic in this miraculous life. If you open yourself, you do make yourself vulnerable to pain. But the deeper pain you experience, the deeper joy you can have."
"These paintings seem to combine darkness with a certain amount of humor."
"There is a serious side to these paintings and there is also a side inspired by The Haunted Mansion. There is real pain and there is also something else that isn’t just irony. I include "lowly" pop culture influences in my art without an attitude of ironic judgement. I can see the sublime beauty in a cheap toy package and I can see the kitsch qualities in the loftiest work of art in a museum. These things coexist in life and can coexist in a painting. Critics who think a "higher truth" can only be found in obtuse, elitist art are just as full of shit as those who think artists shouldn’t go to college and should have lots of tattoos. "
"Some of the paintings are only a few inches big. Why did you paint them in miniature?"
"Making these paintings at such a tiny scale captured the right tone. I didn’t want them huge and screaming blood. I didn’t feel like doing that. My intention was much more quiet and introspective. I wanted them to be more of a whisper."
"Blood usually can’t whisper, by nature it screams."
"Blood is very powerful. While meat is the substance that keeps our living souls in this physical reality, blood keeps our meat alive. Blood is liquid life. When blood escapes our bodies we are alarmed to the very core of our brains. It is life leaking out of us. It is frightening and makes red a profoundly intense color. "
"Is that why you covered the gallery walls with red velvet drapes and had everyone wear red to the opening?"
"Yes. I liked the mood it created. Adding further to the mood, Stan Ridgway created a "Soundtrack" for the show. I have loved Stan’s music for many years, and it was such an honor to work with him. We met at my Bunnies and Bees show last year. We were dancing around the booze hole, and he came up with the idea to make music to go with my art. It is extraordinary that it actually came to be. Stan and his wife, Pietra Wexstun, created a special composition to go with each painting. Their beautiful music added a great deal to the experience of seeing the show."
"Just one more question, Mr. Ryden. What is the significance of the fact that Abraham Lincoln and Christina Ricci were both born on February 12th?"
At this point in the interview Mr. Ryden’s attention seemed to wander. He slowly replaced his clown mask and fell silent. Realizing the interview was over I gathered my things, walked out of the studio, and rang for the elevator.