by Rick Gilbert
Stepping inside the bright and airy Mendenhall Gallery, two flights up from Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena, the visitor is greeted by a sight which transforms the City of Roses to the Emerald City of Oz. Regularly spaced around the walls in gilded rococo frames of various shapes and sizes is an eye-popping assortment of dewy juvenile vixens, cuddly plush pets, alchemical symbols, religious emblems, Asian lettering, primordial landscapes, flying saucers, hand puppets, honey bees, pumpkin heads, party hats, laboratory apparatus, and slabs of meat.
The motive intelligence behind this crazy quilt of incongruous images and inscrutable narratives is that of painter Mark Ryden, long-time San Gabriel Valley resident who graduated from Art Center College of Design in 1987. The dozen or so new canvases which comprise The Meat Show, as Ryden’s exhibit at Mendenhall is titled, have been incubating for some two years. At once intriguing and unsettling, baffling and enchanting, the works at first suggest easy classification as pop surrealism but, unlike historical Surrealism, which was anti-art, Ryden’s compositions celebrate art history, and are, in fact, subtle amalgams of many sources and influences, as wide-ranging as Psychedelic and Vienna School artists Neon Park and Ernst Fuchs, to classical French formalists Ingres and David. In ryden’s work, an eclectic fusion of pop imagery such as the face of Emmett Kelly, Easter Island statuary, and alphabet books is linked with liberal appropriation from the classical canon and subjugated to a lofty and stagy stylistic treatment usually seen in the art of earlier eras, in a way which blurs the traditional boundaries between high and low art. Reminding the viewer one moment of Donald Roller Wilson’s loveable chimpanzees, and of Thomas Gainsborough’s Pinky or Blue Boy the next, Ryden’s creations subvert expectations and charm and bemuse with a combination of insolence and insouciance.
The keynote of Ryden’s vision is a reverential and fascinating, if very strangely skewed, view of childhood, and his approach to the subject is not so much one of childhood revisited, as of childhood perceived from the inside out. As everyone knows, children do not differentiate and make value distinctions between phenomena, as adults do. Children are animists who assign vital force to everything they see. In Ryden’s juvenile grand cosmogony, seemingly dissonant objects and ideas have equal importance and coexist in a state of grace where everything is charged with a magic ambience and follows its own odd logic.
Snow White, one of ryden’s enigmatic portraits of precocious, barely pubescent or pre-pubescent girls, is a paraphrase of The Odalisque by Ingres. Here, set against a backdrop of prehistoric foliage, replete with brontosaurus, dimetrodon, dragonfly, ferns, volcanic peaks, and giraffe, is the reclining figure of a nude girl, arresting with her huge eyes, pouty mouth, and pink ribbon cresting her casually coiffed tresses: Disney’s Snow White as a blend of innocence and sensuality calling to mind Shirley Temple, Betty Boop, Lolita, Kewpie dolls, Keane paintings, and Calvin Klein jeans commercials all at the same time. Flanking this nymphet, who holds a book bearing the face of Buddha on its cover, is a bunny levitating on a steak whose striae are shaped like dragons, fish and elephants, and by a honey bee, flowers, and a bottle of wine whose label features a Pinkerton like unsleeping eye and bears the inscription Luke 22:18 (... for I tell you that I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”) All of this is lovingly rendered in mellow, sumptuous tones reminiscent of the nature book pictures done in egg tempera in the 1940s and 1950s by illustrators such as Charles R. Knight, Rudolph Zallinger and Walter Ferguson.
Another of Ryden’s meditations on the spirit and the flesh is The Angel of Meat, in which a nude houri, winged and hovering mid-air, holds a large steak inscribed “angelica carnis” as cherubs hover above her head, ready to crown her with a halo, and other cuts of meat float in air to either side, while Abraham Lincoln herds a steer in a bucolic meadow below. After the impact of the sheer beauty of the piece wears off, it strikes one as neo classical calendar art from a turn-of-the-century German beer hall, or as a pin-up from a vintage issue of Butcher’s Weekly.
The Debutante is one of several portraits concerned with momentous, if fictive, occasions: wearing a dress embellished with cards and photographs of Colonel Sanders, Abraham Lincoln, an astronaut, and Jesus, and strung with dangling sausages, mandrake roots, and award ribbons, yet another fawn-eyed young female stands, flowered scepter in hand, like a Spanish infanta with a monkey for a fail to offset her beauty. Canvases such as The Pumpkin President, Little Star, and The Ecstasy of Cecilia not only emulate and paraphrase famous paintings but resemble those inspirational illustrations from childrens’ books detailing episodes from the lives of important figures from history, science, art, and religion.
The theme of indoctrination or of the pedagogic process runs through several of Ryden’s pieces. In The Ox Suckling Romulus and Remus, the “ox” is a Guernsey cow, all udder, draped with a banner emblazoned with the face of Buddha, like a communist Chinese propaganda poster. There are eyes everywhere: the enormous eyes of the cow, the hooded eyes of the Buddha, the dim eyes of the monkeys, and the eyes and hair of the little blond boy who looks like one of the children in the horror film Village of the Damned. In The Ecstasy of Cecilia, a saint’s revelation is approximated by an alembic, a dropper bottle, a smiling-faced cuckoo clock, a poodle, a yin-yang symbol, a toy dog, a toy monkey, a baby leaning on a ham hock, a window framing a landscape worthy of Cranach the Elder, numerological references, Cyrillic script, and a tutelary jack-in-the-box rabbit who springs from concealment in order to impart to Cecilia, in her patent leather shoes and satin dress, the inmost secrets of the universe. In this painting are no less than eighteen eyes.
With their nonsequiturs and illogical equations, Ryden’s paintings coax the viewer into pursuing any number of red herrings, false scents, and trails that seem to dead end in deliberate indecipherability. Frustrating analysis, the only way to look at them is with the anything-can-happen attitude adopted by Alice when she found herself in Wonderland for, in Rydenland, where Abe Lincoln is the Mad Hatter and Harvey the March Hare, nonsense is to be enjoyed and relished, just as it is in the writings of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear - as much for its enigmatic qualities as for its endlessly poetic possibilities.