by Hope Urban
Informed as much by painters in the great neoclassical tradition as he is by the strange collection of kitsch objects which line the walls and countertops of his small studio, artist Mark Ryden is some- what of an anomaly in the art world these days: A meticulous illustrator and painter in oils who applies his highly disciplined approach to images that look as though the nostalgia factory blew up. He earned an illustration degree from Pasadena's Art Center, where. Ryden says. "I had to seek out older professors to whom being able to draw well was still a priority." Of the art biz's tendency to give short shrift to draftsmen: "They really do seem to look down upon somebody who has high skill. it's almost like they think you're copping out."
One arena where his skill has been appreciated, however, is in album cover art and magazine illustration. In both fields Ryden has raised tile level of the usual bourgeois fare; his work has even been nominated for a Grammy,
The early-1800s French pointer Ingres figures prominently as an influence in Ryden's work, but so does the By-Lo Baby, a popular 20?-era doll whose freakishly wide-eyed visage is reincarnated as Jajo, Patron Saint of Clowns, in a painting of the same name.
Ryden's work also gives a nod to surrealism, especially if that old maxim regarding the movement as "an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table" is weighed. Consider The Birtha ginseng root delivers, via Caesarean, a blue bunny (right now weirdly staring down at me from a cabinet of oddities.) as a nurse sadistically wields some sort of medical torture device,
Loosely modeled after Ingres' Odalisque, the minutiae of details in this bizarre scene render it realer than real: the infinitely subtle gradations of light and shade that lay across the satiny fabric folds make the viewer long to touch them, the perfectly executed medical instruments that reside on the table, along with a little bottle of Tiki Tonic and the anatomical illustrations that line the wall make this painting a joy to view.
A newly started painting at the studio gives greater insight into how Ryden goes about creating his canvases, which can take months to complete: daubs of paint and sketched-out faces will take on layers of oil, a slow building up which results in the richly-layered surface whose finish appears so effortless.
In the studio, a circa 1800s lithos of Siamese twins Chang and Eng cohabitates comfortably with a stuffed head of the strange and beautiful jackelope, a rare model of a knocked-up Barbie, and the most amazing collection of Tiki matchbooks I've ever seen. This open and genuinely nice artist says. rather self-consciously, "I'd rather you talk about this stuff than the art.' Enough said.