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Mark Ryden's Creepy Miniatures
by Doug Harvey
April 18, 2003
Mark Ryden "paints high atop a magic castle in Pasadena . . .," according to the artist's press bio, "among his many trinkets, statues, skeletons, saints and old toys that he collects for inspiration." Anyone familiar with Ryden's signature work - fabulous hyperreal renderings of intricate tableaux chock-full of the aforementioned religious icons and childhood figurines, usually engaged in some slightly ominous, unapologetically surrealist antics - may be a little surprised by the sparseness of his new paintings at Earl McGrath Gallery. A star of the Juxtapoz/lowbrow/whatever scene, Ryden's work has previously tended to the horror vacui typical of many lowbrow practitioners, cramming his smallish canvases with a phantasmagoria of creepy, big-eyed children, medical objects, terrycloth bunnies, effigies of Abe Lincoln, and various cuts of meat. This everything-including-the-kitchen-sink strategy, while inevitably entertaining on some level, often exposes how little craft or content an artist actually has in their repertoire.

Ryden has managed to avoid this pitfall by treading a fine line between nostalgic cliché and disturbing archetype, and working obsessively through a magnifying lens to manifest the otherworldliness of his visions in the impossibly detailed and meticulously glazed surfaces of his painted panels. There is something of an arrested adolescence in Ryden's work - in its content, which oscillates between aching over lost innocence and stupefaction at the revelation of personal mortality, but also in its technique, which takes the shibboleth of getting it right to vertiginous extremes. Small wonder he's become a hero to the modernism-despising illustrational set, who measure artistic validity by the illusionistic persuasiveness of receding checkerboard floors and gathered brocade drapery.

It is this same crowd that will be most perplexed by "Blood: Miniature Paintings of Sorrow and Fear," which forgoes virtuosic clutter for spare iconic arrangements of one or two figures in almost barren environments, although the drapery makes an appearance of sorts. With this new body of work, Ryden seems to have tumbled from his magic castle and landed in the red-velvet interdimensional waiting room from Twin Peaks. The gallery itself has been lined in floor-to-ceiling crimson curtains, and former Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway has even provided an appropriately Angelo Badalamenti-esque original soundtrack. All of this theatricality has the effect of reducing the scale of the paintings, which average around 4 by 5 inches (not counting the trademark ornately carved wooden frames) and are diminutive even by Ryden's standards. The content, too, has changed: The violence that previously brimmed just beneath the candied surface of Ryden's images has spilled forth in gushes and torrents, arterial spray spritzing and dripping from the severed heads of otherworldly nymphets - the same precious, wide-eyed tykes that had wandered immune through Ryden's earlier nightmare landscapes.

It's an improvement; for all its technical dazzle, Ryden's pictures have always seemed a little pat, too self-contained, too sure of themselves. While it might be tempting to attribute the reduced scale to cost-effectiveness (somewhere around $535 per square inch) or the angst levels to midlife crisis (one work depicts a moppet weeping at a gravestone inscribed with "40" - Ryden's age as of January 20), the paintings in "Blood" are too genuinely disturbing - especially at this moment, when images of mutilated Iraqi children clog the airwaves - to be mistaken for attempts at manipulation. A few small sacrifices genuinely felt have a greater impact than all the glitzy toys and arcane ephemera in the world.

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