The Frye Art Museum has specialized in retrospective exhibitions of contemporary representational artists, like Odd Nerdrum and Norman Lundin. None of these one-person shows, however, have had quite the impact of the current showing of the unique visions of Los Angeles painter Mark Ryden. Hundreds of devoted fans attended both his recent opening and book signing, their fervor marking the emergence of a true art world star. Ryden is the leading figure in an eccentric movement called variously Lowbrow Art, or Pop Surrealism, one with many links to Seattle. Our critic Gary Faigin joins us with some reflections on this controversial artist.
The recent West Coast survey show Baja to Vancouver did not include the work of Mark Ryden, but it is hard to imagine an artist who gives clearer voice to the torrid cultural mishmash of Southern California. Son of a father who customized classic cars, brother of a well-known underground cartoonist, Ryden himself did album covers for the likes of Michael Jackson before discovering his true calling in the world of gallery art.
Whatever the merits of his pictures as artistic statements, Ryden commands our attention as a craftsman and visionary of the first order. Very few contemporary artists of any stripe have his command of the vocabulary of representation, and his singular world of not-quite-innocent juveniles and stuffed animals cavorting in vaguely anachronistic landscapes has an astounding sense of presence. I didn’t see any visitors simply walk past these eye-catching canvases; more typically, groups of people stood close, poring over the abundant minutia and madcap narratives, puzzling about deeper meanings.
The pictures in the show are of several types. There are miniature portraits with one or two figures, arrayed in glass cases like Byzantine icons. Much larger, and much more complex, are cryptic, diagrammatic paintings which are vaguely reminiscent of posters for old-time carnival sideshows, or 1950s religious calendars. Finally, there are several spectacular panoramas, highly theatrical works in which a few beautifully painted young people calmly inhabit an overstuffed Alice in Wonderland setting, failing to register much in the way of fear or surprise at their Bizarro-World surroundings.
All of the pictures have in common a perfect satiny finish and pastel palette, as well as abundant and often amusing borrowings from the intersecting worlds of mass religion and pop culture. Ever present, for example, is the bearded visage of Honest Abe, here merely a face on a building block, there a Goliath-like, disembodied head. Equally ubiquitous is the bland presence of a greeting card Jesus Christ, tiny and demoted to a minor role, whether popping out of a birdhouse or piloting a Soviet-era rocket plane.
More disturbing is the repeated appearance of intimations of mortality, in the form of flowing blood or glistening slabs of meat. In the miniature portrait entitled "The Cloven Bunny," for instance, a sad-eyed young waif painted in the style of Margaret Keane reclines next to a dismembered stuffed rabbit, her hand resting listlessly in the stream of its copiously flowing blood.
In the much larger panel, "The Butcher Bunny," a giant-sized plush rabbit has turned the tables, smilingly wielding a handsaw to neatly slice off pretty pink sections of an enormous ham. He has momentarily stopped in his work to greet a giant-headed Pollyanna and her doll-sized Lincoln companion, while the girl’s stuffed doggie chews on a giant steak. Variously shaped and colored cuts of meat surround the figures like a decorative frame, hammering home the Death and the Maiden thematic conceit.
Also provoking is the erotic nature of Ryden’s nymphets, not exactly news in this post-Lolita era. In one modestly disturbing bedroom scene, a pre-teen albino expresses a jet of milk from one breast, its arc ending in the mouth of a lively stuffed elephant. Prancing forward for a closer look are hordes of other animated stuffies, while a calendar-art Jesus stands guard.
What is one to make of all this cultural mixing and matching, however skillfully done? A repeated analogy in critical writings about Mr. Ryden has been to the art of Hieronymous Bosch, the 16th century master of nightmares heralded as the precursor of modern surrealists of all stripes. Such comparisons in the case of Ryden miss the point. For Bosch, his at times violent and sinister fantasies were in the service of orthodox religiosity. In paintings like hell scene of the "Garden of Earthly Delights", man is seen as a pathetic and sinful creature, doomed to be led astray by all manner of monstrous vices and temptations, the only hope that of the eternal life hereafter.
The narratives of Mark Ryden do not rise to the level of morality tales, nor is there an overriding belief system of any sort. Alongside the deadly serious Bosch, Ryden is more the ultimate court jester, lightening our path to confusion or perdition with a sort of high-fashion, 21st century gallows humor. We may be lost in the wilderness somewhere between Buddha and Colonel Sanders, but in the paintings of Mark Ryden, at least we are beautiful losers.