Issue 38, October / November 2001
By Sophie Pike
"Well, I don't really paint my paintings; a magic monkey does. He comes to my studio late at night, when it's very quiet. Mysterious things happen late at night when most people are asleep. I help the magic monkey, but he does most of the work. Monkey comes tapping at the door, we get the paint and brushes out of the treasure chest and we have a great time making art."
- Mark Ryden, 1998
Earlier this year the walls of The Outre gallery in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne hosted the Californian artist, Mark Ryden's first Australian exhibition, titled Amalgamation. Whilst he worked away with his monkey preparing for his next show in New York, Melbourne patrons were frightened, inspired and even enchanted by the amalgamation of wonder and weirdness in Ryden's paintings.
It wouldn't surprise me if Mark Ryden had magical abilities, if he was in touch with another land, whew monkeys do talk and paint. Unlike many adults, Ryden is able to see the magic in the world, the kind of magic that only the young and innocent see. "If I start to think too much, then it's time for a nap or to build a fort out of blankets with my son. Things have to flow from a place that is more subconscious and uninhabited," he says. His work is submersed in layers of eclectic pop icons, religious emblems, primordial landscapes, alchemical symbols, slabs of meat and mesmerized children. He is creating a kaleidoscopic world that is distinctly his own and it wouldn't surprise me if Miss Alice's Wonderland is just down the road.
Ryden has established himself as both a surrealist pop illustrator and a fine artist. Some of his larger paintings take up to three years to create, so much of his time is spent in his small cluttered studio in Southern California. His studio is a living replication of his work. Mark collects trinkets, toys, statues, saints, skeletons and themes like, medicine, children's storybooks, anatomy and religion. Everything he paints follows its own dreamlike logic. Freakish skeleton puppeteers drive meat trucks, books stare with one eye, dogs wear crowns and one can always find a piece of raw meat.
At a glance Ryden's work appears cute and very pop influenced, but he consciously makes his work a little absurd, lacing it with a nightmarish tone. "I don't intend on my work being nightmarish. When I analyse it I do think that I like images that are more of a balance of the beautiful and the strange. Images that are 100 per cent beautiful bore me. Images that are 100 per cent strange bore me as well. I like the combination of the two." Ryden's desire to distort and tango with life has been with him since childhood. He recalls his primary school teachers questioning why his drawings of dogs had their intestines showing or why his self-portraits had a third eye. He learned to enjoy confusing people and even scaring them. And, years later found his viewers enjoyed it too.
Mark Ryden’s work is collected and treasured around the world by a number influential figures and celebrities. His work is owned by the likes of: Stephen King, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Ringo Starr, X-Files creator Chris Carter, Aerosmith's Steve Tyler and Bridget Fonda Since his first sale in 1994, Mark Ryden has gathered a number of exclusive collectors and has been commissioned to design CD covers for Michael Jackson's Dangerous, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and a recent Rolling Stones cover illustration of Jimi Hendrix. His subject matter may be regarded as strange, but coupled with beautiful imagery and fine detailing this becomes its success. The vision his paintings alludes to is one in which reality is charged with magic. As Ryden creates his dreams on canvas, he should only hope that we take the time to look a little further, laugh a little harder and see something we'd never dreamt of seeing.