For his synthesis of classical art and popular culture (with a sinister twist), the American artist Mark Ryden was dubbed the 'godfather of Pop Surrealism' by Interview Magazine in 2010. Rising to acclaim in the late 1990s through an illustrative aesthetic that combined popular culture with historical iconography, Ryden's work draws from wide-ranging sources. His references art history, religion, Surrealism and Pop art, and also consumer products—from meat to children's toys—there blurring the boundaries between high and commercial art.
Ryden's signature use of doll-like faces and fairy tale atmospheres reflects his fascination with children's imagination and their unrestrained attitude towards art-making. 'I've never seen my 4-year-old son have a creative block; and his art is much more interesting than most adults' art', the artist commented in his statement for The Meat Show (1998). In 2004, he noted in another artist statement that 'It is only in childhood that contemporary society truly allows for imagination.' Ryden's wonderlands attempt to return the human psyche back to childhood, but their renditions are at once charming and sinister. Works such as The Magic Circus (2001) and Tears (2005) are inhabited by petite girls with cuddly animals, his creations brimming with childhood innocence; at the same time, works such as The Butcher Bunny (2005) and Incarnation (#100) (2009) depict human innards and raw meat, endowing his work with a chilling undertone.
Meat is a recurring motif in Ryden's work, and his 1998 exhibition The Meat Show at Mendenhall Gallery, Pasadena, focused on this titular substance. Works in the show such as Snow White (1998)—which depicts the children's character atop a slice of raw meat—juxtaposed meat with innocent child-like figures. In the end, we humans are meaty creations underneath our humanity.
The works first exhibited as The Gay 90's Olde Tyme Art Show in 2010 at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, then at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles four years later as The Gay 90's West embody Ryden's imaginative amalgamation of classical art and popular culture, as well as his interest in sources from Euro-American culture. The term 'the Gay Nineties' itself was conceived in the 1920s as a reference to the nostalgia for the 1890s. By the time of the artist's birth in the 1960s, this utopian version of the end of a century had evolved into a repertoire that bore little resemblance to the actual time.
In his own rendition of this warped view of a particular period in history, Ryden internalises the criticism that his works are kitsch through images that amplify nostalgia for an imaginary past. Incarnation (2009), one of his most iconic paintings, places a platinum blonde girl in a meat dress against the backdrop of a poignant English garden. Meat Dancer (2011), on the other hand, references French-born English painter Jules Bouvier's (1827–1881) dancer in Fanny Cerrito (1842), whose tambourine Ryden transforms into a piece of meat. Unlike Incarnation and other works in the series, however, Fanny Cerrito's background borrows from not English but Asian gardens.
In 2017, Ryden ventured into costume, prop and set design with Whipped Cream, a reinterpretation of Heinrich Kröller's 1924 ballet Schlagobers ('Whipped Cream'). Collaborating with the American Ballet Theatre's artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky, formerly the artistic director of Bolshoi Ballet, the artist constructed saccharine yet sinister fairy tale visions in three-dimensional form. Whipped Cream follows the story of a boy who lapses into a fantastical delirium after consuming a surfeit of sweets at a Viennese pastry shop. In the delirium, ballerinas in confectionery dresses pay him a visit.
Following his graduation from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena in 1987, Ryden has also embarked on a career as a commercial artist. Among his most famous outputs are album cover designs for Aerosmith's Love in an Elevator (1989), Michael Jackson's Dangerous (1991) and Red Hot Chili Peppers' One Hot Minute (1995). In 1994 he was part of Sideshow, a group exhibition at the Tamara Bane Gallery, Los Angeles, alongside other artists associated with Pop Surrealism such as Robert Williams and Todd Schorr.
Since then, he has exhibited in countries including the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Ryden has also had several exhibitions at major institutions, notably Wondertoonel at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, and Pasadena Museum of California Art (2004–2005); and Cámara de las maravillas at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Spain (2016–2017). He currently lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
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Mark Ryden is a veteran of the Pop-Surrealism style, having been at the forefront of this genre since the late 1990s when it was first taking roots in the artistic community. A curiosity cabinet personified, Mark Ryden's works are often presented in thematic groups where one major theme is explored throughout the series, further interacting with...