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"Late-Night Inspiration"
By Vivian Letran
Sierra Madre painter Mark Ryden has won praise for works made in the wee hours - when he finally has time to look through his vast collection of bric-a-brac.

A visit to Mark Ryden's studio in Sierra Madre is like a trip to the swap meet. In a space the size of a double garage, he gazes out over a sea of knickknacks packed inch to inch, floor to ceiling. He roams the room, shopping for inspiration: Odd little dolls, taxidermy animals, tin robots and portraits of icons such as Col. Sanders and Abraham Lincoln stare back at him. They are his muses.

"It gets me in a creative mood. I can't imagine trying to create images without looking at all this stuff. My inspiration comes from them and flipping through books," Ryden says.

"I have to see something to trigger an idea. I can't imagine painting in an enclosed blank room."

Many of his treasures end up in his paintings. Images of raw meat, religious icons and doe-eyed waifs collide in works that follow the traditions of Bosch and Dali.

Eight of Ryden's latest paintings, some drawings and a limited-edition series of etchings will be on view in "Bunnies and Bees," opening Saturday at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

Ryden creates pastel-colored paintings "of less-than-innocent children in surroundings so compulsively packed with nutty detail as to try the eye severely. A dollop of Mr. Ryden's drollery goes a very long way," observed New York Times critic Grace Glueck in an enthusiastic review of works at the Earl McGrath Gallery in New York.

"The Magic Circus (Beth)," one of the larger oil paintings in the Grand Central exhibition, shows a waif with brick-red hair standing inside a jack-in-the-box-style container marked "Meat Show," surrounded by an assortment of bees, birds, sea creatures, bunnies, balloons, other children, toys and a statuette of Jesus.

Ryden's painstaking attention to minutiae verges on obsession.

"I can get stuck on a single small element for days," he says. "Like the star and the moon symbol in 'The Magic Circus.' It took me days to figure out what to put there. It's actually an Islamic symbol, and there's a string attaching it to a devil-like figure. The connotation was completely unintentional when I painted it, but looking at that detail suddenly becomes relevant these days."

The paintings look like a cross between the fantastical world of "Alice in Wonderland" and the Little Golden Books series. In "YHWH (Dedee)," a barefoot little girl innocently encounters a manifestation of God, represented as a three-eyed bunny totem. ("YHWH" is the purposefully unpronounceable Old Testament name of God.) Another painting, "The Ringmaster (Shelly)," shows arms and legs sprouting out of Lincoln's top-hatted head as he juggles cuts of meat.

In "Little Boy Blue," Ryden paints a paperboy on a tricycle in pink shorts, shirt and cap with swastikas imprinted in baby blue on his cap and sleeve.

Born in Medford, Ore., in 1963, Ryden takes comfort in nostalgic references to the past, from alchemy symbols to the toys and robots of the '30s and '40s and the 1950s hipster color of pink. His father made a living painting, restoring and customizing cars. Ryden grew up in Southern California and graduated with a fine arts degree in 1987 from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

He first made his mark as an illustrator of album covers for major record labels in Los Angeles and New York. When he paints now, he listens to mixes of '50s lounge music by artists such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter.

Ryden began exhibiting as a fine artist in group shows six years ago and landed his first solo exhibition, "The Meat Show," in Los Angeles in 1998. Grand Central is his second solo show in Southern California.

The father of Jasper, 8, and Rosie, 3, with his wife, Carolyn, also an artist, Ryden spends his days juggling bills, bringing in groceries and running a publishing business called Porterhouse, which prints his limited editions.

Domestic duties and the business side of art continually tug at Ryden's creative flow. The paintings for "Bunnies and Bees" took him two years to complete. It's in the wee hours of the night that Ryden trolls swap meet treasures searching for something magical.

"It's a mood thing. The sun goes down and there's a spirit and energy," Ryden said. "Those are quiet, tranquil hours with no interruptions. I put on music and get in my own world and start to paint."