Wondertoonel - Paintings by Mark Ryden


When the Pasadena Museum of California Art was approached by the Frye Art Museum to collaborate in presenting this exhibition of paintings by Mark Ryden, we accepted with enthusiasm. I had first encountered Ryden's work in 2000 in an exhibition catalogue from the Mendenhall Gallery, Pasadena. I was impressed by the technical facility and skill with which Ryden executed his highly stylized and conceptually complex canvases. The paintings initially struck me—as they do many of my art world colleagues—as straightforward, sometimes simplistic, but ultimately quite complicated. The subject matter and relationships between the seemingly disparate characters that populate his compositions prompted further inquiry.

My first meeting with Ryden turned out to be one of the most extraordinary visits I have ever made. There could not be a more apt description of Ryden’s studio than the title of this exhibition, Wondertoonel, which refers to a cabinet of curiosities. Filled with pictures and toys from secondhand stores, taxidermied animals, and cyberculture graphics, the atmosphere of alchemy that Ryden captures in his imagery was also evident in this space. The studio, rich in personal items, provides an entrée into his art, as does his life story.

Mark Ryden was raised in a creative environment and had a clear vision of himself as an artist from an early age. His father worked with classic cars, painting, repairing, and customizing them, and his oldest brother, who works under the name KRK, has achieved an underground following throughout the country designing graphics for bands, clubs, and political organizations. Growing up in the heart of the entertainment industry of Southern California, Ryden also acquired a sensitivity to the creation and production of popular culture icons. Ryden's experiences and interest in art as a teenager eventually led him to the Art Center College of Design, a prestigious art school in Pasadena, to which he won a scholarship. There, his further exposure to illustration, graphic design, and traditional painting techniques, laid the groundwork for a broad range of approaches that have served him well over the course of his career.

Following his graduation from Art Center in 1987, Ryden worked as a commercial artist and built a reputation in the entertainment industry for highly original compositions and designs. In order to expand his artistic boundaries, he tackled a broad array of projects, which were noted by many inside and outside the art world. While his standing as a commercial artist grew, Ryden's commitment to pursuing a fine art career gained solid footing as well. His first paintings appeared in Sideshow, a group exhibition at the Tamara Bane Gallery in Los Angeles in 1994. This exhibition, along with the birth of Juxtapoz magazine in the same year, provided a platform for a group of artists with loose stylistic connections. Robert Williams, Todd Schorr, Ryden and others were inventing vivid, sometimes disturbing, tableaux. Sourcing pop culture, historical subject matter, and iconic images, the work by these artists garnered the self-deprecating moniker of “lowbrow art.” Following Sideshow, Ryden's work began to gain a devoted following of collectors and admirers. By the time of his 1998 exhibition, The Meat Show, at the Mendenhall Gallery, he was capable of holding his own in the gallery world. The paintings in The Meat Show, each which specifically related to meat production and consumption in our society, comprised a complex of cultural observations on the theme. Following on the success of this thematic presentation, two of Ryden’s subsequent exhibitions, Bunnies and Bees (2001, 2002) and Blood (2003), furthered his practice of exploring a topic in a group of paintings.

Even amidst all the visual cacophony of our culture, Ryden’s imagery stands out for its brilliant surfaces and provocative substance. Therefore, we are pleased to organize and present Wondertoonel, Ryden's first one-person museum exhibition that highlights his career over the past ten years. The exhibition offers an opportunity for the public to survey Ryden's oeuvre and endeavors to bring a foundational perspective to his stylistic and conceptual innovations. It is my hope that Wondertoonel, with its complex and multiple layers, will open new eyes to Mark Ryden's rich and unusual universe and will continue to enchant those who have known his work for some time.

Wesley Jessup
Pasadena Museum of California Art

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