Wondertoonel - Paintings by Mark Ryden

Seattle Weekly
by Andrew Engelson
December 8 - 14, 2004

Let me make one thing clear: I think it's absolutely brilliant that someone paid $28,000 on eBay for a grilled cheese sandwich miraculously imprinted with the face of the Virgin Mary. It's a triumph for found art that Duchamp, Warhol, and Damien Hirst would envy. And hell, it beats spending 28 grand on a stupid SUV. So what does this have to do with Mark Ryden's "Wondertoonel," which has slouched inside the doors of the prim Frye Art Museum? Well, for starters, Ryden has a sharp eye for the absurdly miraculous. Things like the severed head of Abe Lincoln juggling half a dozen pork chops.

OK, so the California painter—who is a masterful craftsman—is a touch morbid. But there's a fine line between morbid and observant. Ryden, like William Burroughs, strips the lunch on our forks naked, so we're constantly reminded of the violence behind the surface of our placid little lives. A meticulous painter of the old school (making him a perfect fit for the Frye), Ryden is a postmodern icon maker. His canvases are stocked with a strange and inscrutable array of personal symbols that open a door to the secret life. Again and again, you run into Lincoln, bees, freaky stuffed animals, Jesus statues, numerology, quotes from the world's religious traditions, bodily fluids, and tons of wide-eyed Keane-esque children. As anyone who's spent more than 10 minutes with kids knows, they aren't innocent angels, but instead voracious observers of all that adults try to hide. Just try walking past a road-killed frog on the sidewalk in the company of a 3-year-old. Ryden has that same childlike fascination with the icky. We're just meat, Ryden's canvases insist, but meat that can also read philosophy. In paintings such as Puella Anima Aureo (above) there's a palpable sense of how weird it is to reside in a body. Kudos to departing curator Debra Byrne for bringing this great show to the sleepy Frye. It's a pleasure to watch the Frye's elderly patrons stop to admire a painting of a nude Christina Ricci luxuriating amid a paradise of steaks, wine, Jesus, and stuffed animals. Now that is priceless.

Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., 206-622-9250. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.

Art Access
by Molly Norris Curtis
December 2004

On a sunny, Saturday afternoon a line of beautiful Seattle hipsters snakes through the galleries of the Frye Art Museum. Who is at the end of this line? A rock star? A famous writer? No, it is California-based painter Mark Ryden – who ends up signing catalogs for three strait hours. The gift shop has to shut its doors in order to stop people from buying exhibit catalogs for the artist to sign. From what I hear from a fan in line, of the 5,000 catalogs ordered by the Frye half have sold. The only event that might come close to topping the Mark Ryden phenomenon is if Claude Monet came back from the dead to sign calendars. Ryden's paintings have something for everyone both aesthetically and consumer-wise – there are items affordable for every strata of society. His paintings are made into limited edition giclee prints; there are books and catalogs; images in Juxtapoz Magazine; prints for sale online made by opportunistic entrepreneurs who cut pages from Ryden books and frame them; and then there are the tribute products where fans make buttons, belts, and gloves adorned with reproductions of Ryden’s paintings. What’s not to like?

Ryden is a slow painter in fast times; the skill of his work is so exquisite that one doesn't notice it, making it possible for the viewer to enter strait into his created world. Then there is the palette – Easter colors from a lost childhood, the hues of our collective nostalgia. Ryden writes in his artist statement that he is not afraid of nostalgia or sentiment – a statement much bolder in this late-period ironic era than when Picasso said it way back when. In terms of content it looks like Ryden took a snowball and rolled it up through the history of Western art beginning in the 16th century – bits of Middle Age illuminated manuscripts, Dutch vanitas paintings, Hieronymus Bosch, early 20th century illustration (especially John Tenniel’s for Alice in Wonderland), Edouard Manet, Balthus and even John Currin populate his paintings. This painted world – which even has atmosphere – is a place where time and space are of no consequence; it's like Heaven where everyone is finally together again. Abe Lincoln, Jesus, Colonel Sanders, Hollywood celebrities and Buddha go about their business amidst toys, rockets, flowers and prehistoric life forms.

Ryden becomes God the Creator of an alternative, edited world.

Depicting characters with big eyes is an easy way to please; any painter engages the viewer's narcissism: "Hey, that figure is looking at me!" We're held by our own vanity. Ryden is guilty of painting people with Margaret Keane, waif-style eyes – the difference is that Ryden's figures are savvy about the world and its ways while Keane's people come off as victims. Ryden's compositions do suffer some from Junior High School Pee-Chee folder syndrome – eyes can be found nearly everywhere, stuck willy-nilly onto bottles, birdhouses, and at the center of flowers.

A larger painting entitled "The Magic Circus" (2001), portrays a carnivalesque atmosphere – carnival originating in the medieval era as a celebration where folks could let their hair down the week before Lenten. This work perfectly showcases Ryden’s gift for juxtaposing popular with elite culture, ordered ideas with masquerade, profane with the spiritual, and pleasure to pain. This is a candy-coated homage to Bosch's eternal masterpiece "Garden of Earthly Delights."

As when viewing a Bosch, a major element of Ryden’s art is the reward ratio – the longer you spend looking the more you discover about the painting, our culture, and your self. Ryden's art has gotten folks back to sitting on gallery couches again. In the way that the Harry Potter books made kids read, Ryden's paintings make people of all categories stand in front of paintings and discuss them. This is an amazing cultural gift to contemporary mankind – and Ryden has made this possible by being true to himself and his talents. A personable guy that has realized the American Dream, we go along for the ride merely by looking at the paintings. We are not unlike his characters that are all conscious of us while on their own heroic journeys via trains, walks, carriage, dreams, or Psilocybin mushrooms.

"Snow White" (1997), an odalisque-style oil on canvas painting where a mouth-watering steak with a drunken toy bunny atop it appears to minister to a nubile young nude lounging foreground of dinosaurs is interesting in the context of current culture. Ryden gets away, morally, with painting young nude girls because a history of sexy advertising behind him has numbed viewers. Balthus on the other hand painting young female nudes in suggestive poses in the 1940s was suspect. Regarding a portrait of pop singer Bjork (1998), Pasadena Museum of California Art Director Wesley Jessup suggests that the painting of her – fetishized, she lies on a tree stump that writhes with fantastic flora replete with those all-knowing eyes – may be an über Bjork, a likeness more real than photos of the chameleon-like star. Ryden has also painted portraits of actors such as Christina Ricci and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wondertoonel is a mid-career retrospective of Ryden's art. Culled from private collections, these paintings were created for specific themes from past exhibits with titles such as "The Meat Show" (1998), "Bunnies and Bees" (2001-2002) and "Blood" (2003). 's carefully shaped worlds of wary chaos make us feel alive by keeping us on edge. Rather like a horror movie, we are relieved to watch others exist in a world we don't have to inhabit. Ryden's paintings suggest what psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips wrote in his book On Flirtation, "The most terrifying world is the world in which it is impossible to make a mistake."

"Wondertoonel: Paintings by Mark Ryden" is on exhibit through February 13, at the Frye Art Museum, located at 704 Terry Avenue, in Seattle, Washington. For more information, please see the Museum website at www.fryeart.org.

The exhibit then travels to Pasadena Museum of California Art and is featured February 26 to May 8. For more information, please see the Museum website at www.pmcaonline.org

All content within this website © Mark Ryden. Please visit www.markryden.com Wondertoonel