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Art; Creepy, comic and very bloody visions
April 4, 2003
By Leah Ollman
"Blood: Miniature Paintings of Sorrow and Fear," the tantalizing title of Mark Ryden's show at Earl McGrath Gallery, does what it's supposed to do. Sounding vaguely like the tagline of a horror movie, it entices you to come see -- to venture a dip into deep, dark, primal emotions. The show is worth a trip, but don't expect more than a shallow dip into the psychic mud puddle.

Come instead for the spectacle, for the silliness even, but not for anything as genuine as sorrow. Ryden paints small (down to 2 by 3 inches), and he paints well, and he lays it on thick. Not the paint itself, but the drama of the experience.

His little, elaborately framed paintings of saccharine-sweet girls with blood on their hands (or faces, or shoulders) hang against floor-to-ceiling curtains of red velvet. Music plays, a moody original score (by Stan Ridgway and Petra Wexstun) that interweaves piano, electronic instruments and voice. Ryden likes to cite such heady influences as the cabala and the medieval practice of alchemy, but it looks as if he got most of his inspiration from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

The paintings do consistently feature blood -- as sacrament, adornment and gratuitous pulse-quickener. In "Fountain," a girl in a soft pink dress with lace trim stands primly, as if on stage at a school assembly. In her arms she cradles her own sleepy-eyed head, while her neck spurts a perfectly choreographed fountain of blood.

In "Cloven Bunny," a similar doe-eyed girl lies on the floor, propped up on one elbow. Her other hand rests in a slick of blood issuing from the bifurcated stuffed rabbit on the floor next to her.

In another painting, a huge hand with a slit in the palm spills blood into a goblet held by a little girl. In another, a blond pixie in pajamas stares with theatrical shock at the massive head of Abraham Lincoln that has materialized on the end of her snowy white bed. "Rose" is a straightforward portrait of a girl with a red rose in her dark hair -- and blood dripping beneath her eyes like runny mascara.

An infant boy (baptized by blood) appears in one of the paintings; but otherwise, girls rule -- placid, waiflike girls with huge, widely spaced eyes, like those in the kitschy paintings of Margaret Keane. They exude innocence and a delicate, virginal femininity. Setting that kind of cliched purity against the violence of decapitation, mutilation and other implied crimes is how Ryden attempts to give his paintings a charge.

The disjunction doesn't come off with as much of a jolt as planned, though, because both the saintly and the sullied feel so contrived, so divested of authenticity. Ryden braids sex, violence and religion together for the sensational thrill of the mix, not because he has anything profound to offer about their complex intersection. What he does offer is a creepy, comic kind of eye candy -- spiked treacle.

Earl McGrath Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, September 18 - October 18, 2003