The first thing someone might be interested to know about Mark Ryden is that in the 90s when he was still working as a commercial artist, years before he was to became “the grandfather of pop-surrealism”, he was acquainted with Michael Jackson and did the album cover for Dangerous. Mark is unfortunately mum about the time they spent together.
Ten years later, Mark was on a new career path. Having shifted from commercial to fine art, he rose to Art World superstar—selling his paintings for six figures and having his exploits followed by celebrities like Nicholas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.
“His work had become increasingly popular through mass exposure, particularly in the Low Brow Art publications HI-FRUCTOSE and Juxtapoz.” (Joseph R. Givens, LOWBROW ART)
Lowbrow Art emerged in the 70s and its unofficial spokesman is Robert Williams, who coined the phrase. But by the late 90s the movement was splitting in two. In one camp were the loud, sarcastic, anti-establishment originators while in the other were a new breed of artist who painted with exacting technique, referenced the Old Masters and began to appear in major galleries, being accepted by the canon. The term “Pop Surrealism” was first used by the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum for their 1998 show. Mark, and others like him, who had been educated by the very artists the early Lowbrow artists rejected, brought figurative art back to the fine art scene for nearly the first time since Abstract Expressionism had wiped it out almost a century ago.
Mark Ryden names as his own classical artistic inspirations: David, Ingres, Bougereau, and Bronzino (BL!SSS Magazine). Girl art fans will realize that Bougereau painted Before the Bath, The Little Thief, The Nut Gatherers and so on, while Bronzino immortalized Bia de’ Medici. Contemporary artists who inspired Mark include Marion Peck, James Rosenquist, Loretta Lux, Ana Bagayan, Julie Heffernan, John Currin, Darren Waterston, Neo Rauch, and maybe not surprisingly, Balthus (Brian Sherwin, Fanny Giniès, HI-FRUCTOSE, The World Observer).
Marion Peck is none other than Mark’s ex-wife. They were powerfully inspired by one another.
The same clean, cutesy sentimentality often pervades both their paintings.
Mark attributes his deep realizations about philosophy to Marion: “he had been asleep; his spirituality was ‘isolated, and…progressed slowly’ before they met” (Amanda Erlanson, Juxtapoz, 2011).
Not a few of Mark’s little girls on wood panels are reminiscent of another artist who graced the covers of HI-FRUCTOSE and Juxtapoz: Audrey Kawasaki.
Or from this series painted on wood slabs:
Mark is trying to evoke wonder. His paintings are laden with metaphysical allusions and all sorts of things which are puzzling and ponderous: Cyrillic and Chinese script, numerology, religious iconography, meat and little girls and on and on. Of meat, Mark explains, “it’s dualistic: it’s just a packaged product, and at the same time it is a symbol of the other side, meat is our living avatar in the world.”
But Mark’s signature inspiration, which gives his work it’s idiomatic style, is swap-meet junk: kitsch, sentimental, nostalgic, melodramatic camp such as figurines of Jesus and Abraham Lincoln, big eyed bobble-headed dolls, old toys, and taxidermied animals. Mark’s flea-market finds define his painting—a regular cast of which appear in nearly every one of his works.
Mark has also been influenced and inspired by his daughter Rosie.
He included Rosie in many of his paintings, one of which later appeared on the cover of HI-FRUCTOSE.
“I photographed my daughter Rosie for the Tea Party painting several years ago. It was the first time she ever modeled for me. She took to it with unbelievable skill even at the age of three. Now she is almost eight and she still loves to pose for me. I usually have a sketch that she imitates. She instinctively understands the expression and gesture needed for a pose. I use her as a model even when the figure is not going to be a likeness of her. The little girl in Rosie’s Tea Party is an actual portrait of her. It is fun to have her face in the painting but it is more difficult and very different creatively than the faces I invent. Rosie enjoys being in my art. She and Jasper (my son) seem to understand my art better than many adults. They respond to it instinctively and they don’t over-intellectualize it. Unlike adults they don’t get stuck, they just experience it. Children in general respond well to my art. I feel I have been successful when a child is captivated by one of my paintings” (Annie Owens, HI-FRUCTOSE, 2006).
Mark sees a special relationship between children and art and has often mused on the topic:
“One of my favorite quotes is by Picasso: ‘All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ I think this is very true. When making art, children can be so much more imaginative than adults. I think a quality that defines many successful artists is that they never lose a sense of wonder of the amazing world around us. I think it comes rather automatically when one is young” (Nate Pollard, Verbiside Magazine, 2013).
“It is only in childhood that contemporary society truly allows for imagination. Children can see a world ensouled, where bunnies weep and bees have secrets, where ‘inanimate’ objects are alive. Many people think that childhood’s world of imagination is silly, unworthy of serious consideration, something to be outgrown” (Artist Statement – “Wondertoonel”, 2004).
“Children have no inhibitions when making their art. I’ve never seen my 4 year old son have a creative block; and his art is much more interesting than most adult’s art. Children are miraculous” (Artist Statement – “The Meat Show”, 1998).
Children appear often in Mark Ryden’s artwork, but it is especially female children–little girls–who haunt his canvases and sketch pads.
Mark talks plainly and directly about the value he puts on the feminine and of the danger of ignoring it:
“As you look back into what has gone on in western civilization, you can see that patriarchy has been the cause of much strife and suffering in our world. It is the masculine dynamic that has caused our society to place money and corporate profit above human beings. It has allowed the earth to be viewed only as a commodity to be exploited. The feminine perspective sees things differently. She sees the earth and all its inhabitants as entities to be revered and cared for. She sees individual human beings as more important than the relentless advance of capitalism and competition. It is my hope, perhaps indirectly expressed in my work, that the divine feminine is reawakening”(Gachman, Interview Magazine).
One critic, Elliott David, has suggested likewise of the little girl in Mark Ryden, “Hidden in these girls’ oversized eyes is the imperialism and the blood of heritage aristocracy, a sort of false innocence that might imply evil but is really coy subversiveness lurking within.”
Mark is himself mostly elusive about the meaning of the little girl in his work:
“There are many symbolic meanings in my art that I myself am not necessarily conscious of. The most powerful meanings in art come from another source outside an artist’s own literal consciousness. To me, tapping into this world is the key to making the most interesting art. Some people find my refusal to explain everything in my work deeply dissatisfying. They can’t stand mystery.” (Joseph R. Givens, LOWBROW ART).
“I like for viewers of my paintings to feel presence of meaning and story but I like for them to come up with their own interpretations. I think if I explain too much of a painting away the painting loses a sense of mystery and curiosity” (Kitty Mead, Art Beat Street).
Mark is so coy about the meaning of the little girl in his work because she is mysterious to him too. He says, “I’ve had to think about that myself and work backwards. My wife actually said something really funny, and I think she’s right, in that they’re sort of self-portraits. They’re anima figures; they’re soul figures… They’re sort of everybody. They’re you when you’re looking at the painting.”
Marion Peck expands on the little girl as self-portrait idea: “each of the girls Mark paints is in one sense a self-portrait. In his paintings, the anima manifests as Sophia—the muse, the fount of creativity, and the goddess of wisdom” (Amanda Erlanson, Juxtapoz, 2011).
But not everyone loves the little girls in Mark Ryden. Robert Williams satirized them in a drawing in which the cartoon girl’s head is so big she can’t hold it up; Joseph R. Givens explains, “Mocking Ryden’s sentimental themes, Williams drew a banner above the melancholy figure with the words ‘caring, nurturing, fawning.’ As a slight to Ryden’s childlike persona, Williams signed his drawing ‘Bobbie Wms.'”
Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine what is actually anti-establishment as opposed to conformist about Robert Williams’ pornographic ultra-violence. Sexualization of women, callousness and blood are almost the most monotonous things someone could paint, perfectly in step with the patriarchy. Elliott David’s perception that the girl in Mark Ryden “is really coy subversiveness [of] imperialism” is a keen one. Mark’s work and his portrayal of the little girl is personally vulnerable, sensitive, and touching—precious qualities to be sure.
Pip Starr did a post on Mark Ryden a couple years back as well so visit here to see more. It includes a closeup of the girl in the Dangerous poster and a couple of interesting comments. -Ron