Juxtapoz Magazine : Chuck Amok
Sept / Oct 2003
"BLOOD: Miniature Paintings of Sorrow and Fear"
Mark Ryden has recently moved his infamous studio to the top of the famous, allegedly haunted, Castle Green hotel in Pasadena, California. I couldnít wait to meet the mysterious Mr. Ryden; king of the current pop narrative movement the "Art World" canít shake. I had so many questions I couldnít 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 50ís 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 Weeís 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 couldnít 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. Iíve 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 yearís 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 didnít hide their pain. We all have pain. It is comforting to know we are not alone in it. Thatís 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 ĎSorrow and Fearí?"
"There is a very dark and painful side to life, but that is natural. People in our culture think they shouldnít 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 isnít 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 shouldnít 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 didnít want them huge and screaming blood. I didnít feel like doing that. My intention was much more quiet and introspective. I wanted them to be more of a whisper."
"Blood usually canít 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 Stanís 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. Rydenís 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.
PURE Magazine: "The Meat Alchemist"
No. 006, Vol One, 2001
His fans includes the likes of Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Stephen King and Michael Jackson. Painter Mark Ryden talks to Noko about his predilection for Christina Ricci, Abe Lincoln, prime beef and his little friend the Magic Monkey.
Call me old fashioned, but I like paintings. It all started for me when, as a child, my grandmother took me to Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery. Home of the finest 19th Century Symbolist / Pre-Raphaelite collection outside London or Paris. As I approached the grand stairway, I was completely overwhelmed by the vast canvas I saw towering above me: "Samson and Delilah" by Solomon Solomon (1887). The sheer epic power-chord emotional scale and dramatic angst of it all won me over to the power of paint... forever.
Painters and painting have been out of fashion for a while now. Personally, I blame Marcel Duchamp. Ever since that guy descended the staircase, and began taking the piss in someone else's urinal, the thought of actually representing stuff has seemed like the intellectually poor hick-cousin of Conceptual art.
The upshot of this is that, here in the UK, the difference between the Turner prize and the Edinburgh festival gets smaller and smaller every year, and far from being the new Rock' n' Roll, BritArt has degenerated into the new alternative comedy. Don't get me wrong, there is, and always will be a place for good conceptual art - Jenny Holzer, Andres Serrano, Thomas Grunfeld, Marc Quinn and Damien Hirst consistently hit the same eternal primordial highs that Bronzino, Bosch and Bacon did, it's just all the mediocre shite we have to wade through on route.
Often included lazily in the roster of US artists that make up the Lowbrow Art "movement" (post-Robert Williams / Ed Roth representational "outsider" artists currently beginning to crack the "Fine-Art" gallery circuit in Los Angeles), Mark Ryden's work can broadly be described as a kind of pop-art surrealism with a non-linear-kind-of-post-modern-matrixing, that could have only come from one born in the 60's and raised in Southern California on simply too much of everything they put in the water, the meat and the TV over there.
Ryden's paintings have such an intensely consistent portfolio of personal iconography that you could virtually write a Rule-book or Users' Guide on it. They are filled with dewy-eyed dream children with engorged heads, in a strange and empowering limbo between absolute innocence and world-weariness; a Pandora's box of toys of both now and bygone ages, benign beasts both real and mythical: Abe Lincoln, Hollywood actors, rock stars, spaceships, ancient medical equipment, Colonel Sanders and raw meat.
The subjects of his paintings exist in perfect out-of-proportion half-remembered Lewis Carroll playrooms or primordial prehistoric landscapes littered with the exotic symbols tied to Alchemy, freemasonry, the mystic Orient and the everyday imprint of TV advertising. The thing that somehow ties these seemingly disparate images together, is simply the paint. Ryden's touch sings with an even-handed celebration of Art history from High to Low, Ingres to Margaret Keane, Redon to Rivera, 40's wildlife illustrators to 60's Psychedelia. Ryden has claimed that it is in fact not he who paints these paintings, but a magic monkey who comes to visit him late at night.
Noko: Do you ever worry that the magic monkey might start repeating himself, find someone else to visit, or worse still just sit there masturbating like a regular monkey?
Ryden: For me that is the core aspect of my work. I try and figure out how, to facilitate that creative feeling where you sense you are tapping into something more than yourself. It is very difficult to reach that state a lot of the time. When I was younger I never questioned it and creativity seemed limitless. Now I do have days where it is very difficult to get away from a very linear logical uncreative state mind.
Noko: Going back as far as Warhol, there appears to be an American work-ethic with guys who have come to prominence via an illustration background that puts the English "Artschool - dance - that - goes - on - forever" ethos to shame. Your commercial work: a positive influence or a hindrance to your creative life?
Ryden: It has mostly been a positive influence but there is both a positive side and a negative side. The most rewarding part of commercial work is the mass reproduction and the large audience you reach. The most overwhelming negative is the concessions you might have to take with a painting. Sometimes, computer manipulations can be made to your work after you are finished without you ever knowing. That can feel like a terrible violation.
Noko: One of your most famous images is undoubtedly Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" LP sleeve artwork - tell us something we don't know about the King of Pop.
Ryden: I suppose the thing most people don't know, and what surprised me, was how "normal" Michael Jackson was in person. His public image is so strange I did not know what to expect but when I met with him we had a very typical and relaxed conversation. We had many common interests we talked about. Maybe I am just a freak also.
Noko: When one of your paintings features someone famous, do you give them first shout at owning it? - Leonardo DiCaprio has his. Does Christina Ricci?
Ryden: I am a big fan of Christina Ricci and would have loved for her to own the original and my gallery tried to pursue it but didn't get anywhere. Later, after it was sold to someone else, the gallery was contacted by her "people" showing interest. Oh well.
Noko: The growing mainstream recognition of the lowbrow movement in the States seems to have given a forum and a way forward to many artists working representationally and outside the conceptual vogue. You struck me as being one of the first to move beyond that basic "hot rods and eyeballs" rubric, drawing on more personal iconography and an altogether more painterly symbolism. Do you feel a sense of a "movement" and kinship with any of the other artists on the "scene"?
Ryden: I have been grouped in with the "movement" you are describing. I am not sure how I fit in with it all, but I don't mind the association. I grew up with that imagery and it is a part of me. I was born in 1963. My brain's visual language was created from pop culture. I grew up with movies like "Barbarella" and "Planet of the Apes". I lived in a house full of album covers and comic books. Combined with this, I was also able to pore over books on artists like Dali and Magritte when I was a young child. I wonder what visual imagery they looked at when they were children? I believe the common thread in this work might be that these [lowbrow] artists are tired of so called "conceptual" or "minimalist" art that is devoid of creativity and interest. So much of it is so dreadfully boring visually that an observer has no interest to learn of the "concept" in the work It has been 50 years, time to move on.
Noko: You have a traditional art school training. Given the prevailing conceptual ethos in those institutions for the last couple of decades, was there a specific point when you decided not to be one of the bastard offspring of Duchamp?
Ryden: I have a very strong drive to paint. I have never questioned that I love looking at paintings and making paintings. Fortunately there were still several "old school" instructors remaining who valued traditional draughtsmanship and painting techniques.
Noko: Name two artists - one living, one dead - who have had a major influence on your work.
Ryden: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Georgannne Dean
Noko: My life was changed when I bought your "Uncle Black" (1997). I absolutely love it to pieces. Say a few words about it.
RYDEN: I don't like to totally explain away the content of any particular painting. A very important part of the paintings for me is the sense of mystery in the symbolism. I think something is lost when that unknown quality is taken away. That is why I like to use Alchemy symbols, Japanese characters, Russian writing, and Latin phrases. It is more important how they 'feel" in the painting rather than what they actually mean I suppose this is lost on those who understand these various writings, but for most it is not. I felt very good about "Uncle Black" when I finished it. I felt I really attained the vision I was striving for. The epiphany in that project was when it hit me to paint.
Noko: You use computers in the composition of your paintings. When you actually start with the canvas, do you have a pretty solid idea of how the final painting will look or is there any extemporisation going on as it unfolds?
Ryden: My basic process is to borrow from a multitude of sources when assembling an image. I use figures from classical paintings, faces from magazines, graphics from old ephemera. I have stacks of books and clippings that will all go into a single painting. One dilemma I face in my work is to reconcile the contradiction between my very controlled methodical painting style, and kind of spontaneous subconscious content. So I allow myself to change things quite a bit at any moment as I go along. I paint out large sections wiping out weeks of work sometimes. I have to have that possibility open. So the original sketch can end up looking very different in the finish.
Noko: Childhood and The Unconscious are pivotal in your work - have you ever fancied psychoanalysis? - or would that "the winged life destro"'?
Ryden: I really don't want to know the psychological reasons why I paint certain things. That would kill the process. Too much analysis can be the death of creativity.
Noko: Last time it was raw meat. What's next?
Ryden: I am figuring that out right now.
Noko: Tell me something that is PURE Ryden.
Ryden: A taxidermied monkey, in a dusty glass case at a small museum on the outskirts of some foreign town that you could swear just moved its eyes.